The Fire haven't captured possession of the Brimstone Cup since 2001 and this year's season opener will provide not only a first step toward regaining bragging rights against the former Dallas Burn but it will also allow provide the revamped Fire an opportunity to measure up against one of the best teams in the league last year right from the start. FC Dallas has lost a few important players from last season's MLS Cup runner up squad. Gone are midfielders Dax McCarty and Atiba Harris, leading scorer Jeff Cunningham, and defender Heath Pearce. The only new acquisition of note is 18 year old Colombian striker Fabian Castillo, who is considered a designated player due to the transfer fee involved in his acquisition.
Schellas Hyndman seems to have moved midfielder Brek Shea into a position in central defense next to George John while Jackson and Zach Lloyd are the likely starters at the fullback spots. Lloyd will be starting at left back since first choice Jair Benitez is out after being suspended for a spitting incident against
Hyndman has toyed with the idea of switching away from the 4-1-4-1 formation that he employed last season in favor of a 4-4-2 line up that would feature league MVP David Ferreira behind two forwards. The problem with that is
Marvin Chavez, Eric Alexander, Andrew Jacobson and Eric Avila are the choices to fill out the midfield. Chavez can flat out fly as the Fire should well know. He burned them for a 46th minute goal last October en route to a 3-0
Veteran Kevin Hartman was excellent in goal last season with a league best 0.62 GAA.
Despite Carlos De Los Cobos' insistence that a 3-5-2 formation isn't set in stone all indications are that this will be the Fire's line up of choice. The defensive starters ahead of Sean Johnson seem to be pretty clear with Cory Gibbs, Josip Mikulic, and Jalil Anibaba almost certain to get the nod. Guessing who the starters will be in midfield is another story.
Logan Pause and Marco Pappa seem to be the only sure bets. Patrick Nyarko is arguably the Fire's best playmaker and should be on the pitch but De Los Cobos seems to favor him as second half substitution. Perhaps because of his pace. Or maybe because he's trying to ensure Nyarko is fully fit for the second half of the season. Regardless, DLC doesn't have the luxury of resting one of the team's most dangerous offensive weapons for any reason when it's imperative for the franchise and his future employment that the Fire get off to a good start in 2011.
It's likely that Baggio Husidic will share the dual holding role with Pause while Gonzalo Segares and Bratislav Ristic round out the midfield on the wings. Rookie Davis Paul also appears to be in the mix. The Fire's Uruguayan forward duo, Gaston Puerari and Diego Chaves, will get a chance to finally see some extended minutes together in real competition. How these two connect will determine the team's success in the final third.
FC Dallas : OUT - Kyle Davies D (Left ankle surgery), Edson Edward D (ACL tear); QUESTIONABLE - Ugo Ihemelu D (sports hernia)
Chicago : OUT - Calen Carr F (concussion), Mike Banner M (left achilles tendinitis), Steven Kinney D (R achilles surgery)
Referee : Terry Vaughn
The Fire have a chance to make a statement on the road against a team they have struggled with for several years. While the organization seems focused on attitude and atmosphere, only goals and victories can sustain any of the positive vibe they're feeling.
The Fire will battle and play a fairly even match against a Dallas team that isn't as strong as the unit that lost MLS Cup back in November. A slim goal will be the difference.
FC Dallas 1 Fire 0
The Rest of the League
I'll take a stab at the rest of the weekend's fixtures along with taking a closer look at the Fire's playoff competition in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto FC @ Vancouver
TFC and the road are not a good mix but they are facing an expansion side. Toronto's new head coach Aron Winter will try to implement a "Dutch" style of play. A tall order with the talent available to coaches in MLS and more specifically with the mediocre allotment of talent compiled in Toronto. Dwayne DeRosario makes them dangerous but there's not much else there. TFC finished one point behind the Fire last year and I don't see very much reason to believe they'll be better in 2011. It will take Winter at least 2 seasons to fully implement his system.
TFC 1 Vancouver 1
Columbus @ DC
Both teams will be in the mix for spots in the wide open East with most experts looking at a big improvement from United and mixed opinions on the Crew. During the offseaon Robert Warzycha launced half his roster including the team's linchpin Guillermo Barros Schelotto and nine others. Their biggest acquistion during rebuilding.....34 year old Jeff Cunningham. They'll rely heavily on the inconsistent play of Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven while giving second year player Dilly Duka more playing time. Andres Mendoza looks to be a failry productive striker but Columbus is still very questionable.
DC United, winners of only 6 matches last season have added several key players. But is it enough to improve dramatically on a dreadful 2010? Much of the optimism rests on whether or not a player who was involved in a deadly car accident a little more than a year ago can make a full recovery. If Charlie Davies can regain the form that made him a USMNT favorite, DC may stand a chance. If Davies struggles, United will trudge along attempting to keep up with the rest of the pack in the East. Adding players like Dax McCarty and Fred are improvements but is either one really an impact signing? Is Perry Kitchen ready to be the player they think he is? Is the inexperienced Ben Olsen the right man to lead them?
DC 2 Columbus 1
Seattle @ New York
The Red Bulls are the clear class of the East on paper. They'll need to take care of business at home against a Seattle side that just could be a tad overrated.
New York 2 Seattle 0
Philadelphia @ Houston
Simply moving from the Western Conference to the Eastern side of the league isn't going to ensure a playoff spot for Houston. While some prognosticators have tabbed the Dynamo to finish as high as second (or even first) in the "lesser" division , I still believe Houston has a problem. While supporters point to the fact that last season's team was racked with injuries they fail to point out that they just weren't very good to begin with. That wasn't the same side that challenged for the top spot in the West in 2009. Their answer for losing Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark last season was to move defender Geoff Cameron into a central midfield playmaking role. Cameron got hurt in Chicago last summer and it still remains to be seen whether or not he can capably fill the role Dominic Kinnear envisions him in. Up top Brian Ching continued to battle injuries and he's already hurt again this year. The major additions this year are Jason Garey, Hunter Freeman and rookies Kofie Sarkodie and Will Bruin. Is that really what you would consider an impressive offseason? I don't.
The Union started to come along late last season in terms of play of on the pitch but were never quite able to turn enthusiasm into results. Brian Carroll and Faryd Mondragon will help but someone needs to remind Peter Nowak that this isn't 2003 and Carlos Ruiz is just an old, diving, pain in the rear in 2011. However, if Sebastien LeToux can continue his amazing form of 2010 the Union may have a shot to get near the .500 mark. At best.
Union 1 Dynamo 1
Portland @ Colorado
Portland appears to be the stronger of the two expansion sides this year but a trip to Colorado should hand them their first MLS loss.
Colorado 2 Portland 0
Sporting Kansas City @ Chivas USA
The Wizards are gone but Sporting KC still has questions. Mostly on the defensive side. Releasing Jimmy Conrad and trading Jack Jewsbury for little more than allocation money doesn't appear to be the swiftest of moves. They've added Julio Cesar but they are going to be a sieve on defense unless more reinforcements are brought in. KC does have some firepower with Teal Bunbury, Kei Kamara, and Omar Bravo on the front line of a 4-3-3 attack. That should be enough to keep them in the mix in the East although high power and bad defense has never been a formula for winning in soccer.
SKC 2 Chivas 1
Real Salt Lake @ San Jose
RSL is still the best team in the league in my opinion. They'll prove it this year in league play and the CONCACAF Champion's League.
RSL 2 SJ 1
New England @ Los Angeles
Steve Nicol has made the most with the least for several years now in MLS. Last season wasn't pretty and the additions of Didier Domi, Ousmane Dabo, and AJ Soares shouldn't have anybody in Boston punching playoff tickets. They'll be a bit better if Shalrie Joseph has his head screwed on right and they can find another forward to go along with the solid Marko Perovic but they're still not very good. The Revs claim they had a deal with a designated player in Turkey fall through at the last minute and insist they are pursuing other DP options. I'll belive that when I see it.
Los Angeles 2 New England 0
The game will be on Comcast SportsNet with Dan Kelly on play by play and Dallas' Bobby Rhine in the booth. I'm curious to see what CSN has in store for pre and post game coverage of the opening match of the season.