This week's number is two, which is how many goals the Fire have scored in the first two matches of 2005. Following on the heels of my last column's notion that preseason doesn't mean a heck of a lot, the first matches of the regular season are where teams really have to start putting things together. So what have we learned so far about our 2005 Fire squad? In no particular order:
This is not our first-choice defense. The offseason saw significant changes to the Fire's back line, but newly acquired players like Samuel Caballero and Tony Sanneh have been kept out of the starting lineup with various injuries. In Dallas, their absence was acutely felt, as the Fire 'D' was clearly unsettled early in each half when the team formerly known as the Burn found the back of the Fire's net. To the credit of the guys who did play, the other 43 minutes in each half went much better, particularly after the Fire were reduced to 10 men. But lapses in defensive concentration have been a bugaboo of this team for years, and that needs to be fixed and fixed fast if the Fire wants to succeed.
The kids are all right. Rookie forwards Chris Rolfe and Chad Barrett looked dangerous in limited minutes in Dallas, to the point where Rolfe was rewarded with a start against D.C. United the following week over third-year man Nate Jaqua. He proceeded to make Fire head coach Dave Sarachan look brilliant by scoring the team's only goal of the match. With Andy Herron suffering a sprained ankle at RFK last week and Slovakian forward Lubos Reiter still waiting for his immigration papers, Rolfe and Barrett will have more opportunities to force Sarachan into a very tough decision once he has all his strikers available.
Help is on the way. Caballero and midfielder John Thorrington are finally off the injury list this week. Reiter is on his way. While one point in two matches is far from ideal, the Fire hasn't looked out of their depth by any stretch, so getting these players into the lineup could make a huge difference.
Speed demons. When you look at a lineup that includes Justin Mapp and Ivan Guerrero on the wings, you expect to see those guys beating opponents with speed. That hasn't really come to fruition yet. Mostly, this seems to be because the Fire haven't been able to change the point of attack quickly enough, whether through a long ball out of the back to switch fields, or through quick passing in the midfield. As players take two and three touches before getting rid of the ball in the center of the field, the speed advantage on the wings is squandered. Hopefully, as the team gets used to playing together, this will improve and create more scoring opportunities during the run of play.
Ouch. Losing Herron and goalkeeper Zach Thornton to injuries against defending champs D.C. United won't make anyone's job easier. Some who questioned Thornton's match fitness after a long layoff may be feeling some vindication after he strained a muscle pushing a ball over the crossbar, but would you rather he not strain a muscle and give up the goal? Muscles heal, and the organization clearly has confidence in backup Matt Pickens. As is the case with the other injuries, the silver lining of them coming early in the season is that younger players can get first team experience before the race for the playoffs heats up later in the summer.
Off to the races (or not). Speaking of races for the playoffs and how they don't heat up until the temperatures do, it looks like parity is back for another go-around in Major League Soccer. After only two weeks, only one team, the Kansas City Wizards, even has a chance of winning their first two games. Every team has salvaged at least one point so far.
The scheduling gods are smiling. After tough matches with tough opponents, the Fire will face a San Jose team that has blown leads twice already, followed by a MetroStars squad that had a horrible preseason. If the "Men in Red" can't secure at least four, if not six points in the standings from these two matches, my next column might be kind of dark. Just so you know.
Change at the top. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the recent changes in the Fire front office. General Manager Peter Wilt's presence will be missed by everyone who has had the good fortune to meet and work with him. I almost certainly wouldn't be writing here if it weren't for Peter, and I practically owe him my first-born by now. New CEO and President John Guppy certainly has his work cut out for him, and I hope to sit down with the former MetroStars Executive Vice President and pick his brain for a future column.
Chris Costello is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.