Over the past few weeks Corben Bone might have become the most important player on the Fire roster.
A first-round draft pick out of Wake Forest in 2010, Bone, 22, looked lost during the little playing time he received last season, a year he admitted was tough for him.
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But he has started the last three games in the Fire's new 4-1-4-1 formation as an attacking midfielder, and he showed a little of his first-round promise in Saturday's 2-2 draw at Toronto FC, assisting on Orr Barouch's tying goal.
Coach Carlos de los Cobos and the Fire need Bone to step up and be the playmaker the team has lacked.
They need Bone to step to the ball, keep possession when necessary, start the attack, make the incisive pass that puts a teammate through for a good scoring chance, and maybe even score a few goals himself.
It helps that his style of play matches de los Cobos'.
"My style is short passes and connecting with people and then playing 1-2s, being dynamic and mobile and stuff like that," the Texan said. "So, yeah, I think the formation we're playing and what he's said so far, he kind of likes that style of play and it fits me. I'm just thankful that he's here."
The question is, is Bone ready to shoulder the load?
Ask de los Cobos where Bone needs to improve and the answer is simple and direct: "Time."
As in, with time and experience Bone will keep improving.
"My confidence is definitely growing; my comfort level is definitely growing," Bone said after training Wednesday. "I think my game is getting better. I think the way to get better is to play in games, and I've played in three games so far this year.
"I think I've gotten better each game as I've progressed, and I just hope I get another opportunity to play again and hopefully I'll get better the next game as well."
Already Bone looks like a much different player than he did last year. But the Fire needs him to accelerate his learning curve.
"I think in the past I've kind of been scared to do certain things," he said. "But I'm starting to get more comfortable doing things I know that I can do. And I'm starting to see my defensive game and reading the game a little bit better.
"As you play more (in MLS) I think you understand that the speed of the game is pretty quick, so you start to get used to that and anticipating things a little bit better."
"He is maturing," de los Cobos said. "Some players mature very soon, some players need some time. Corben is better. He is playing very good, and I believe in him because he's showing he wants to help the team."
Ties that bind:
Rookie midfielder Davis Paul missed last weekend's game at Toronto FC. It was an excused absence. Paul got married in California to his childhood sweetheart.
"Actually, everybody was pretty supportive," said Paul, 22. "I actually got engaged the summer before my senior season (at California), so you're making plans long before anything pans out. It's just always sort of been a dream of ours since we were 16 to get married in the warmth and not January and the cold.
"Carlos (de los Cobos) was really supportive, and we always pride ourselves on supporting family first and things like that."
The rookie has known the new Somerlyn Paul long enough to remember when she got her driver's license.
"So I guess we beat those odds," he joked.
As expected, the Fire will not pick up the option on Mexican forward Nery Castillo.
Acquired last summer on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk as a designated player, Castillo played little and did not have a goal or an assist in eight games. He was loaned to Aris FC in Greece over the winter and will not return.