The Chicago Fire's worst fears materialized on Tuesday, when the club announced striker Ante Razov will miss the remainder of the regular season after he undergoes an ankle operation this week.
One of the most lethal scoring threats in MLS history since joining the Fire in their inaugural season of 1998, Razov's absence will leave Dave Sarachan's strike force in a bit of a precarious situation. Razov is scheduled to undergo surgery on Wednesday and has not played since a July 3 match against Columbus, when he aggravated an already existing injury on a freak play.
"I've had the bone spur for a few years," said Razov. "I rolled my ankle and heard a click. I tried to run it off but then realized it was more than just a sprained ankle. The good news is that there's no ligament or cartilage damage. But it is devastating for me as a player to have to watch the team struggle, especially after coming off such a good year. It's not easy to watch."
With Razov's absence, Chicago is left with Damani Ralph, Nate Jaqua and Dipsy Selolwane as its striking core. Those three players combined carry only four years of MLS experience before this season, just half of Razov's total. For the defending Eastern Conference champions, struggling to find their form, leadership and experience can be just as important as putting the ball in the back of the net.
"Our young guys like Justin Mapp need to step up," Razov said. "These guys like Nate Jaqua need to produce, it's as simple as that. If they want to build their careers and become big players they need to come out and play big."
The Fire are a much different team when Razov is on the field. Ralph hasn't been able to establish the kind of partnership with any other striker that comes close to the connection he and Razov share. While Ralph is having a solid season (eight goals, two assists, 18 points), it is also clear that he isn't as comfortable up top as when Razov is in the game.
"This year with Damani there are no surprises," said Razov. "Everyone knows him now. Last year when Damani and I were both out there it made things easier for both of us, because the defense couldn't just concentrate on one guy. Now a lot of pressure falls on him and that's a little unfair. He's a great player but he's still young and has a lot of developing to do."
Razov's ankle surgery is yet another devastating blow to a Fire side that has been missing key players all season. Midfielder Jesse Marsch hasn't logged a minute of action and DaMarcus Beasley's departure for Holland leaves a huge gap to fill on the wing. That after an offseason that also saw goalkeeper Zach Thornton and Carlos Bocanegra depart for Europe.
"The biggest issue with us is that since last year's MLS Cup Final, we've lost four Best XI guys and one of the best goalkeepers ever in the league," Razov said. "With myself, DaMarcus, Carlos and Zach all missing, we've lost four huge parts of our team. I don't think any team could recover fully from that."
Despite their struggles, Chicago is still very much in the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. They are tied with New England (19 points) at the bottom of the standings, but the Fire trail third-place D.C. United by just two points. A drive toward another Eastern Conference title in the MLS Cup Playoffs could also mean a return for Razov before the end of the 2004 campaign.
"It's going to be a mad dash to see how things come," said Razov. "The doctors are saying 12 weeks, so we need to go pretty deep in the playoffs, but I'm hoping to return as soon as I can."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.