The Fires bench is being tested now, no doubt about that.
Faced with his clubs third game in seven nights, coach Frank Klopas left attacking midfielder Sebastian Grazzini home for Saturdays road match against the Columbus Crew, starting Rafael Robayo in his place. He also gave Frederico Puppo a start up top in place of Dominic Oduro.
None of those moves worked out very well, as the Crew scored twice in the first half and then held on for a 2-1 victory. That result pulled the Crew (5-4-3) into a tie with the Fire (5-4-3) for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, suggesting theyll be battling each other for a playoff berth for the remaining two-thirds of the season.
And that might not be the only battleground for the long-time rivals. If both win their third-round matches in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, theyll collide in that competition on June 5 at Toyota Park. Thats entirely likely, as both face minor league opponents on Tuesday. The Fire face the Michigan Bucks, a member of the Premier Development League, in Pontiac, Mich., while the Crew take on the Dayton Dutch Lions.
As for Saturdays match, the Fire disappointed the 600 loyal fans who piled into 10 buses for the trip to Columbus a journey paid for by the club. The Crew, on a roll with a 3-0-2 record in its last five games, were like the Fire playing its third match in seven nights.
Columbus scored twice in the first half. Klopas then replaced Puppo and Marco Pappa with Oduro and Orr Barouch at the outset of the second half. The new combination generated some chances, but a header by rookie defender Austin Berry in the 71st minute was the only goal the Fire could muster.
"The fight, the character of the guys in the second half was tremendous," said Fire captain Logan Pause. "The guys who came on, the subs, were fantastic. Weve got a group of capable guys, not just our first 11."
Chances are Klopas will have to go deeper into his bench on Tuesday, because the changes on Saturday werent entirely satisfactory.
"We looked a little bit tired at times," said Fire assistant coach Mike Matkovich, speaking on Klopas behalf after the match. "The guys battled through that. Mentally they were very strong. We could have gotten 2-2."
Instead the loss was the first to an Eastern Conference opponent in more than a year (a 1-0 defeat at Philadelphia on May 21, 2011 was the last).
The Fire will be playing its fourth game in 10 nights in its first Open Cup test of 2012. The club has made the 99-year-old tournament a high priority since winning the title in the epic inaugural season of 1998. The Fire has won the Dewar Cup four times and lost in the finals twice, the last being a 2-0 defeat to the Seattle Sounders last season.
All amateur and professional teams registered with the U.S. Soccer Federation are eligible for the Open Cup, and those not in MLS have to battle through preliminary rounds before getting a crack at the big-leaguers. The Bucks got their chance with a dramatic 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
The Riverhounds are in the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division, and the match was played in Bridgeville, Pa. Still, the PDL club advanced thanks to Stew Givens goal in second-half stoppage time. Givens was the PDLs defender of the year in 2011.
Though the Fire have a sterling 28-9-3 record in Open Cup play, the club hasnt won the summer-long tourney since 2006 when Dave Sarachan was the head coach. The other titles came in 2000 and 2003. In 14 seasons the Fire has reached the Open Cup semifinals eight times.