Daily Herald
Why underachieving Fire has struggled so mightily
By Orrin Schwarz | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 7/27/2010 12:23 PM | Updated: 7/27/2010 1:35 PM

Nobody is happy.

Not the Fire players, frustrated by a 4-5-5 MLS record at the All-Star break. Not management, which is looking for help on the field. Not first-year coach Carlos de los Cobos, even as he preaches patience.

"For me to tell you I'm happy, you'd think probably I'd been heading too many head balls and stuff like that," Fire technical director Frank Klopas said Tuesday. "Of course we're not happy. I think there were moments in games where we played very well. In every game we're in the game."

The truth remains - during the first half of the 2010 season, the Fire has been bounced from the U.S. Open Cup by a USL-2 team, failed to advance past group play in SuperLiga and generally looked mediocre in league play.

The whys are pretty straight-forward:

Loads of injuries: It would be a shorter list to name the players who haven't missed significant playing time this season. The Fire dressed only 15 players for last week's home SuperLiga match because of all the injuries, some short-term, others long-term problems.

The injury problem has forced veterans to play more minutes on weary legs, stunted the growth of the rookies and made it difficult for the roster to form a semblance of cohesion on the field.

Time for another change at goalkeeper?: The Fire released veteran starter Jon Busch just days before the season began in a salary-cap move caused by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. It left the team with a second-year goalkeeper as the starter, Andrew Dykstra, who had never before played an MLS game.

Imagine the White Sox telling A.J. Pierzynski not to bother heading back to Chicago at the end of spring training and handing the starting catcher's job to an untested kid from Class AA.

Dykstra has a decent 1.36 goals against average and 3 shutouts in 14 MLS matches, but more important he has looked shaky at times, hardly inspiring confidence. (Busch has a 1.00 GAA and 1 shutout in 4 games for San Jose since replacing Joe Cannon.)

Clearly, the Fire misses Busch, for his shot-stopping ability, the way he patrolled his penalty area and his fiery attitude.

In the four non-MLS games played by backup Sean Johnson, the 21-year-old rookie has looked the steadier of the two goalkeepers and probably has more long-term potential than Dykstra, 24.

It would be a risky move to make a fourth-round pick the full-time starter so soon, but de los Cobos said Tuesday he is strongly considering it. Don't be surprised if Johnson starts in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

"I have all the week to think who will start in the goal," de los Cobos said.

Little help from new blood: During the off-season the Fire acquired forward Collins John, midfielder Julio Martinez and defenders Deris Umanzor and Krzysztof Krol from foreign clubs.

So far only Krol has produced as hoped.

Martinez didn't make it to July, playing just 108 minutes before being released. John missed about a month because of a gastrointestinal illness and has scored just 1 goal. Umanzor, like Martinez, was slow to catch up to the speed and physical play of MLS, though he seems to have turned the corner.

Look for both John and Umanzor to contribute much more in the second half.

The second half: Obviously, the team wants to get healthy again, and the most important player needed back might be John Thorrington, who hasn't played at all this season. Thorrington brings the kind of visible passion and inspirational will to win that's been missing at Toyota Park this season.

Look also for the roster to continue to change. The recent signing of Designated Player Nery Castillo gives a hint of what kind of player Klopas and de los Cobos want.

Castillo is fast, he's eager to attack and he's comfortable in the short-passing style of play de los Cobos is trying to implement. Two weeks remain in the summer transfer window, and it's possible the club could bring in another DP or two.

The Justin Mapp trade Monday was a blessing, if only to get rid of the underachieving midfielder's big contract and open a roster spot, which is basically all a trade for allocation money does.

"The most important thing is the production on the field," Klopas said. "Obviously, the salary is up there, but you expect from someone like that to be on the field, to be a starting player on the team, to be producing. And that's not the case."

Philadelphia coach Peter Nowak did the Fire a favor in taking the since-released David Myrie in the off-season expansion draft, and he did the Fire another favor in taking Mapp's contract.

The Fire has the talent to make a second-half playoff push. That would make everyone much happier.