The Fire hasnt made a formal announcement yet, but all indications are that veteran German defender Arne Friedrich will be back in the starting 11 for Saturdays home match against the Columbus Crew.
Friedrich hobbled off 29 minutes into a May 12 home match against Sporting Kansas City with a right hamstring strain and both club and player have exercised caution in determining his return to action.
Though the Fire managed a 2-1 win against SKC while Friedrich was in the lockerroom for initial treatment, the club missed him immediately after that. He missed five Major League Soccer matches, and the Fire lost three of them. A quick exit from the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup also came while Friedrich was sidelined and second-year man Jalil Anibaba and rookie Austin Berry manned the central defender spots.
Friedrich rejoined the team for training while MLS was on a two-week break for international matches and considered playing when the league season resumed on Sunday against the New York Red Bulls. After conferring with coach Frank Klopas, the team opted to keep Friedrich off the game roster and allow him another week of training and rehabilitation to regain his fitness.
"The most important thing is that my hamstring is getting better," Friedrich said. "I have to do whats best for my body and my conditioning. I cant do my best for the team if Im not ready."
Now, however, Friedrichs return seems imminent as the Fire tries to gain revenge for one of the defeats suffered when he was out. Columbus beat the Fire 2-1 on May 26, spoiling a road trip for about 600 Fire fans. The club footed the bill for that trip, and owner Andrew Hauptman went a step further after the return home. He presented those loyal fans with a gift a new megabandera that was unfurled at Toyota Park during the rousing 3-1 win over the Red Bulls.
"We need to build on that and get ready for Columbus, another tough match," said Klopas.
The Fire (6-5-3) and the Crew (5-4-4) are in a battle for the fourth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, though plenty of time in their 34-game seasons will remain after Saturdays matchup.
In addition to Friedrichs return, the Crew has something else to worry about. The Fire didnt have Chris Rolfe in the previous meeting. He was nursing a sprained left ankle, but the New York game suggested hes capable of doing some damage against the only MLS club from his home state of Ohio.
Rolfe, who went to college at Dayton, scored the Fires final goal against New York and set up another score one which was called off by a bad referees call. Prior to his three-year stint playing in Denmark Rolfe had six goals and three assists in 15 matches for the Fire against the Crew. Thats almost as effective as hes been against the Red Bulls over the years (seven goals, two assists in 14 matches).
"First of all, Chris is a finisher," said fellow forward Patrick Nyarko, who set up Rolfes goal after scoring the first one himself. "Hes done that throughout his career. Hes quicker than a lot of people think. Hes got great feet and works hard. Hes also a two-way player. Were excited to have him back, and were looking forward to having him help us into the playoffs."
The Fire won both meetings with the Crew in 2011 and owns an 11-5-7 edge in home games against Columbus.