Chris Rolfe

World Cup stokes the Fire

while other countries, federations, and leagues will be shut down with World Cup hysteria.

MLS in 2006 has seen an increased rate in attendance, season ticket sales and sponsorship dollars leading up to the big event. The question is: Will MLS attendances dip as fans are glued to their couches during the World Cup? Will the quality of play on the field suffer when each team's top players are in Germany? For some MLS clubs the answer is yes. For the Chicago Fire, it should be a resounding no.

This summer will be the first time Fire head coach Dave Sarachan takes the reigns of an MLS club during a World Cup year, but there should be little to fear. Despite returning earlier than expected from a torn ACL, captain Chris Armas couldn't return to form in time to be in U.S. coach Bruce Arena's cut of 23 when it was announced on Monday. He has been named an alternate along with forward Chris Rolfe.

Fellow veteran Tony Sanneh is now a year removed from the player pool, so overall there is little worry of players leaving for Germany due to international experience. Sarachan knows that with the Fire retaining more of their top talent, he must take advantage of having a roster more complete than many of his MLS counterparts.

"I feel very confident that we have a very strong roster. Not only our first 11, but beyond that we have quality cover in almost every position," said Sarachan. "Coming into the month of June, we feel that with the expected home dates at Bridgeview and a full, healthy squad we can accumulate quite a few points."

Utilizing that advantage in player personnel should see Chicago turn things in its favor during the World Cup and ultimately determine the team's final position at season's end. Points at home are always important, but establishing a winning or losing streak in front of the home support can make or break a squad's campaign.

While few fans may take the lack of talented "Men in Red" on Arena's final roster as a slight, most should quietly consider the decision to keep the club's best players at home a blessing in disguise. While others will be stretching benches thin with hopes of their reserve players jelling quickly into the first team, Chicago will look to make a push for MLS Cup playoff positioning.

The Fire moving into their brand new stadium in Bridgeview after a nine-game road stretch could be the biggest energizer for the club, as the typical first-year stadium attendance bump and a passionate home-field advantage are both expected. Players being able to finally call somewhere home while taking advantage of its first class facilities will bring much-needed comfort to a franchise weary from a long away stretch. However, that doesn't insinuate that wins are guaranteed. Despite the passion and excitement that a game in Bridgeview will provide, the players need to remain focused.

"I think the challenge is remembering that just because we're going to be playing in a brand-new facility, it doesn't guarantee anything," said Sarachan. "You still have to put in the work each and every day during the week of training. There's no question that our group will be very motivated at home, given the surroundings, the field, the newness, the Section 8 fans and all the other fans that will be there. We expect it to be an advantage but by no means does that guarantee wins."

A chance to represent one's country and to do it at the world's most highly-regarded competition comes just once in a lifetime for some, and for some it may never come. Be that as it may, what the Fire may lack in World Cup representation can only help the team both in the MLS standings and at the gate.

The excitement of opening a new soccer stadium with a full first-team squad will help detract the minds of both players and fans from the carnival that is the World Cup, if only for a short moment. But when the players of the Fire finally take the field in Bridgeview for long stretches this June and July, they must focus on the only job at hand -- getting points at home.

The Fire have all the tools in front of them to make special things happen this season, but it's up to the players to get it done while their comrades are battling it out in Germany. And it's not to say that the Fire aren't loaded with pedigreed, mature young talent that could show their stuff at future World Cups.

Forwards Nate Jaqua and Chris Rolfe and midfielder Justin Mapp have all spent time with the U.S. national team. Forward Chad Barrett and midfielder Craig Capano have both played for the U.S. U-20's, while steady midfielder Ivan Guerrero still remains a rock for the Honduran national team. Most will have a chance to play for their home nation leading up to the next World Cup in 2010 at some point if they put the work in right now, in MLS, with the Fire.

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