The Chicago Fire, defending champions of Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference, will be well represented at the 2004 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., this Saturday.
Four Fire regulars will take the field at RFK Stadium for kickoff, starting all the way in the back with goalkeeper Henry Ring, Jim Curtin in defense, Chris Armas in the midfield and Damani Ralph up top. DaMarcus Beasley was also due to make his fourth All-Star appearance, but he will no longer be able to participate after being transferred to Dutch first division club PSV Eindhoven less than two weeks ago.
A mixture of youth and experience will make the trek to the nation's capital from Chicago. Ring, Curtin and Ralph all received their first All-Star selections this season, but Armas is a regular, having gotten the nod on six previous occasions.
Ring beat out several other strong goalkeepers for the starting role in the East in his first season as a regular contributor for the Fire. In his previous three seasons with Chicago he totaled only two league appearances, serving as the backup to Zach Thornton. He has started and played the full 90 minutes in all but one of Chicago's 19 outings thus far and is second in the league with six shutouts.
Curtin began turning heads in 2001 when he was named the Rookie of the Year in MLS and he was a big part of the squad's success in 2002 and 2003. Though this will mark his first All-Star appearance, it likely will not be his last.
The same holds true for Ralph, who captured Rookie of the Year honors last season with 11 goals, setting a new rookie record. He has picked up right where he left off this season, already striking eight times to lead the Fire in both goals and points (18).
Armas has a wealth of All-Star experience, having been selected seven consecutive times. He missed the 2002 event with a knee injury but will again be patrolling the center of the park in Eastern Conference coach Peter Nowak's lineup. Armas and Nowak are accustomed to attending All-Star weekend together, as the pair were All-Star teammates (1998-2000) during Nowak's prolific career with the Fire.
Beasley's absence is sure to be noted. At only 22 years of age, he was set to make his fourth consecutive All-Star appearance. But with the Fire's terrific record of producing and molding some of the country's finest young players -- Ralph, Curtin and Carlos Bocanegra just to name a few -- don't be surprised if you see even more guys from the Windy City getting the call for the 2005 event.
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.