Only three times has Fire coach Frank Yallop had the luxury of naming identical starting lineups in consecutive MLS regular season matches this year: at Columbus Crew SC (2-2 draw) on May 22 and at home to the Montreal Impact (3-0 win) on May 30; at home against FC Dallas (2-0 win) on Aug. 2 and away to the Portland Timbers on Aug. 7 (1-0 loss); and at home to the New York Red Bulls (3-2 win) on Aug. 26 and away to Orlando City SC (1-1 draw) three days later.
Following both of the first two spells - May 22-May 30 and Aug. 2-Aug. 7 - the subsequent regular season fixture would bring about at least three personnel changes. Both games - a 3-1 defeat to D.C. United at RFK Stadium on June 3 and a 3-3 draw with the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park on Aug. 16 - saw the Men in Red jump out to first-half leads, but called attention to a change in chemistry that, among other factors, led to dropped points.
When the ninth-placed Fire (7-13-6, 27 points) travel to Montreal to face the seventh-placed Impact (8-11-4, 28 points) on Saturday (7 p.m. CT; CSN), absences to David Accam (Ghana), Joevin Jones (Trinidad and Tobago) and Matt Polster (United States Under-23) will prompt Yallop to incorporate some fresh faces into the fold in hopes of gaining ground on the teams above them in the Eastern Conference.
"It's never easy, but we train together every day, so we know each other personality-wise," said Yallop, who was seen frequently intervening Thursday's stop-start training session, stressing defensive shape to a new-look back four. "We worked on a little bit of shape this morning on certain scenarios that I think are going to happen in the game - back four and different changes we make in the lineup as we move forward in the game - just to give our guys a bit of feel with each other."
With a polished performance against a dynamic Red Bulls outfit, the Fire, if not for a dubious offside call on Gilberto and an Eric Gehrig own goal, came close to snatching their first away win of the campaign. Riding that sort of momentum without the energy provided by Polster and balance between defending and attacking supplied by Jones, not to mention Accam's destructive pace on the flanks, will be hard to match.
For Lovel Palmer, who waged a battle at right back with Gehrig during the early stages of 2015 before his move to centerback, vying for places in Yallop's team selection week in, week out has made the Jamaican stronger. Palmer, a likely candidate to replace Polster at right back against the Impact, acknowledged the challenges.
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"Gehrig and Polster, hats off to them," Palmer said. "They came in, they've pushed me all season and I'm very happy for the competition. Personally, it's been good for me. I've been working on aspects of my game that I've never really paid attention [to] before. With these guys coming in and banging on the door, it makes me start to look at myself and be like, 'Oh, what am I doing wrong? What do I need to improve on?'
"Good competition makes for a better team. Coach Frank, when he was building his team, he had that in mind, I'm sure."
Changes are forced, sometimes not. The Fire, largely a momentum team through 26 games, will still be seeking their first win on their travels since July 12, 2014, itching to see whether adjustments to the lineup and formation pan out. When referee Silviu Petrescu blows for the final whistle by night's end on Saturday, the final score will tell the story.
Montreal Impact vs. Chicago Fire
Kickoff time: 7 p.m. CT
Where: Stade Saputo; Montreal, Quebec.
Broadcast: CSN Chicago