Just when it looked like the Chicago Fire was building toward something special as the second half of the MLS season begins, the club showed it isn't so special without a key building block.
The Fire missed a golden opportunity to gain 3 points against a short-handed Los Angeles Galaxy club in front of 20,563 fans at sold-out Toyota Park, losing 2-0 to end a four-game unbeaten streak.
The loss showed the Fire (8-6-4, 28 points) needs to learn how to play without playmaker Sebastian Grazzini, who took a leave of absence this week to attend to family issues in Argentina, his nameplate taken down from above his locker.
"Alex is an attacking midfielder," Fire coach Frank Klopas said, disputing the club needs to start over without Grazzini. "Rolfe is an attacking midfielder. Robayo is very good with the ball, that's very good going forward. We have players that can create. I think everybody's a little bit different, and with every player I think you gain a little bit in one area and you might lose a little bit here but you gain a little bit more. ... I feel very good with the group we have."
Chris Rolfe started a third consecutive match in Grazzini's attacking midfielder spot, but Rolfe was billed as a forward when he rejoined the club this spring and will take time to grow into a new role if he's asked to stick with it. Robayo has said he feels most comfortable as a holding midfielder. Alex, a second-half substitute Sunday who allowed Rolfe to move forward, was an improvement, but still the Fire lacked direction in the final third.
Grazzini wasn't perfect, but guys who can legitimately wear the No. 10 jersey are few and far between in MLS.
"But why didn't we miss him the last two games?" Klopas asked, referring to a 1-0 victory at Sporting Kansas City and a 0-0 draw at Houston the past nine days.
Scoring just 1 goal in two matches, off a quick counter attack at that, hardly shows Grazzini was dispensable.
The Fire would prefer to believe the culprit Sunday was effort, that it is a tired club during a busy stretch of the schedule. Veteran defender Arne Friedrich called it a case of being "lazy."
"In my eyes today we didn't have the effort like we have to show," he added.
On national TV in front of a capacity crowd at home, that's disappointing, especially from a club that prides itself on its character.
Meanwhile, the defending MLS Cup champion Galaxy, a team with three Designated Players, showed the Fire what a good DP brings to the table. Robbie Keane scored both goals, the first on a dubious penalty-kick call in the first half, the second off an assist from fellow DP Landon Donovan, who played just the final 25 minutes but made his presence felt. The Galaxy's third DP, suspended midfielder David Beckham, missed playing at Toyota Park for a fourth consecutive season, instead going to watch the Wimbledon men's singles final.
The Fire has one DP, little-used forward Federico Puppo.
"Obviously, we've got to move on," Klopas said. "It's just one game."
There are 16 games left to play for a club that missed the playoffs the last two seasons and can't afford to make it three straight.