After losing three vital starters to international duty, the looming uncertainty surrounding the Chicago Fire ahead of a road trip to Montreal turned the spotlight on the depth at head coach Frank Yallop's disposal.
Offensively, goals weren't in short supply. Defensively, a back four comprised of the previously steady Eric Gehrig-Jeff Larentowicz centerback pairing, flanked by Lovel Palmer and Greg Cochrane on either side, were found wanting, much like nearly one year to the day in 2014.
On Sept. 7 of last year, Jermaine Jones - whose rights the Fire lost out on during last summer's transfer dealings - and the New England Revolution exposed a Palmer-Larentowicz-Bakary Soumaré-Gonzalo Segares back line, and put a massive dent in the Men in Red's playoff aspirations, keeping the Fire - sitting on 29 points in ninth place at the time - seven points adrift of the Philadelphia Union for the fifth and final playoff spot with eight games remaining on their regular season schedule.
Of those eight, one was won, three were lost and four were drawn.
[NBC SHOP: Buy a Fire jersey here]
On Saturday night, the Fire (7-14-6, 27 points) crumbled in a similar, yet perhaps more devastating fashion. Didier Drogba, in his first MLS start, masterly carved open the Fire defense and lit up Stade Saputo with a hat trick on the way to the Impact's (9-11-4, 31 points) 4-3 victory over Yallop's group.
The Ivorian opened his MLS account in the 27th minute, before Larentowicz replied with a penalty kick in the 37th. Montreal defender Wandrille Lefèvre and Fire striker Gilberto added a pair of goals in quick succession in the 42nd and 44th minutes to close out a wild first half. Kennedy Igboananike fired the Men in Red toward a 3-2 lead in the 59th minute before Drogba wrapped up all three points for the hosts with two tallies, four minutes apart just past the hour mark.
With the Union beating the San Jose Earthquakes, a 14th loss on the season leaves the Fire dead last in the Eastern Conference table and four points back of sixth-placed Montreal, which is also two points ahead of Orlando City SC after the Lions slipped to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Revolution at Gillette Stadium.
The Men in Red showed three changes from the side that drew Orlando City, 1-1, at the Citrus Bowl last time out. Palmer made his return to right back in place of Matt Polster, while Cochrane replaced Joevin Jones at left back, earning his first start since July 3. Homegrown midfielder Harry Shipp rounded out the alterations, stepping in for David Accam on the left flank.
[RELATED: Fire continue road slate against Impact]
A cagey opening 26 minutes saw both sides exchange few, but harmless opportunities before the hosts struck first.
Nigel Reo-Coker swung a cross in from his right back position, delivering for Drogba to use his strength to outmuscle Gehrig. The Ivorian brushed off and spun the 27-year-old centerback in the box, and coolly slotted past a helpless Sean Johnson to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.
Nine minutes later, the Fire found their response. Shipp, after appearing to let a long touch get away from him, was clumsily hacked down by Impact left back Maxim Tissot in the penalty area, leaving referee Silviu Petrescu with no doubt but to point to the spot. Larentowicz calmly approached the kick and sent 'keeper Evan Bush the wrong way to level the match at one-all.
The hosts reclaimed their lead not too long after. Johnson misjudged the flight of Marco Donadel's corner kick in the 42nd minute, which fell to an unmarked Lefèvre at the back post to prod it home. Moments later, Igboananike fired a low, driven delivery toward Gilberto, who got on the end of the cross and redirected past Bush for his first goal in a Fire jersey and the visitors' second equalizer on the night.
In the second stanza, it was the Men in Red who charged out to their first lead. Igboananike leaped up and over Tissot to meet a Shipp corner kick, powerfully heading past Bush for his team-leading seventh goal of the campaign.
As was the case with Gilberto's quick response to end the first half, the Fire fell asleep and saw their advantage quickly evaporate. Ignacio Piatti caught Yallop's team napping, capitalizing on a swift restart. The ball was sent straight into the path of Drogba on the edge of the box, who expertly tucked home his effort to help pull Mauro Biello's outfit level in the 61st minute.
The Ivorian was at it again, volleying toward Johnson four minutes later. Johnson, who was forced into seven saves on the night, could only look on as his initial save on Drogba was eventually headed into an unguarded net, enough for the Impact to see out the final 25 minutes.
The Fire will have six days to regroup before a visit to Red Bull Arena to face New York Red Bulls on Sept. 11. As with last year's loss to New England, which saw the Men in Red take seven from 24 points available, Saturday's defeat mounts more and more pressure onto a team desperate to obtain results, and running out of time to do so.
Chicago Fire Starting XI (subs)
(4-4-2) - Sean Johnson; Lovel Palmer, Eric Gehrig, Jeff Larentowicz (C), Greg Cochrane; Patrick Nyarko (Jason Johnson, 83'), Razvan Cocis (Matt Watson, 75'), Michael Stephens, Harry Shipp; Kennedy Igboananike, Gilberto (Mike Magee, 75').