What was once an established fixture and recurrent feature on the Chicago Fire's Eastern Conference schedule is now on the cusp of becoming an inter-conference clash.
Come Friday, Frank Yallop's side will enter the Lone Star State and BBVA Compass Stadium - a venue that's yielded few results for the Fire - to face the Houston Dynamo for the clubs' 21st regular-season encounter. Newly installed in the Western Conference, the Dynamo sit on 20 points and three places adrift of FC Dallas below the red line, while the Men in Red occupy last place in the East, a seven-point gap separating them from the sixth playoff spot.
Since its 2012 unveiling, the 22,000-seater has left the Men in Red winless in four attempts. It is also notoriously and unfavorably known to the opposition for being situated in a locale where sizzling temperatures and humidity sink in during the summer months, a particular point of reference as Yallop psychologically readies his team for a shift in habitat.
"It's never easy going there," he said Thursday. "But we've got to pick ourselves up. We had a good result on Tuesday. We've got to build on that, and go into this game with confidence that we can get a result and win."
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Indeed, an uplifting 3-1 victory over USL's Charlotte Independence in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 - courtesy of admirable displays from Mike Magee, Patrick Nyarko and Lovel Palmer, among others - helped cast antecedent issues surrounding final third play aside, at least for the time being.
Granted, having only plucked two wins from the Open Cup amid a barren run of form that left his side winless in MLS play in June, Yallop alluded to Tuesday's result - regardless of the opponent - as a viable "turning point" in the season, and the hint of momentum that the Fire could do well to capitalize on as the second half of the season looms.
"I don't look at what division any team is in," Yallop added. "We're not inferior to anybody in the league, we've just got to look at who we're playing against and be ready for them. We're desperate to get a good result and a win. It's pretty frustrating for all of us involved. We know we have a team that can win in this league, it's just getting it all together and making sure we stick together."
As the Men in Red begin a month chock-full of league fixtures, Yallop understands he will have to play his cards close to his chest. Friday night's visit to Houston comes on the heels of another midweek match, which gave rise to some personnel concerns.
On the defensive front, Lovel Palmer, who notched his first goal since Sept. 13, 2014 against Toronto FC and first assist since turning provider on Aug. 23, 2014 at Toronto, was withdrawn nine minutes from the final whistle Tuesday with what Yallop described as a "tight groin," but the Jamaican defender "felt pretty good" and is expected to be ready to face his former side, according to Yallop.
Jeff Larentowicz, who'd been left out of the fourth-round Open Cup victory over Louisville City FC on June 16, returned to the fold with a 90-minute outing in the 1-0 defeat to D.C. United last week, but was again left off the team sheet with a recurring groin injury. "He trained today," Yallop said of his veteran captain. "Don't want to take any risks, so we'll make a decision on him tomorrow."
Apart from back and hamstring injuries that've plagued Designated Players Shaun Maloney and David Accam in recent weeks, Joevin Jones' departure for Gold Cup duty with Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday will leave another considerable void to fill in the midfield. Harry Shipp made way for Nyarko in the 77th minute Tuesday, and, after logging 1475 minutes between MLS and Open Cup play in his second year, Yallop said the decision to take the Homegrown midfielder off was "twofold: to give someone else a chance and try to keep Harry as fresh as we can for the weekend."
Meanwhile, Magee and Nyarko, linking up for the insurance goal to send the Fire through to their 12th Open Cup quarterfinal appearance, "got through the game no problem," Yallop added. "They're available and we'll definitely be using them at some point, but for them to start the game will be tough."
The Men in Red, seeking to avoid a fifth consecutive league defeat, find themselves living precariously midway through the regular season. As is Houston, which is still in the process of molding to head coach Owen Coyle's style of play during his first year at the helm.
"Owen's a very, very good coach that's come into a new league and done well," Yallop said. "For us, we know the guys that are going to be out there and they have a few absentees, as we do. It'll be interesting to see what lineup comes up, but coaching-wise, it's always a tough game away from home as we know."