When the Major League Soccer season opened at the beginning of March, Chivas USA was considered the laughingstock.
On Sunday night, Chivas left Chicago laughing after a 4-1 victory over the Fire that kept the local team winless on the season.
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At least the last-place Fire (0-3-1, 1 point) managed, in its fourth game of the season, to score its first goal.
How has a team expected to fight for a playoff spot endured its worst start in 16 years as a franchise?
The lack of scoring:
Unable to find a striker it liked at a price it liked, the Fire decided to wait until July's transfer window to fill a void it recognized up front, hoping to navigate through the first half of the season without falling too far behind. That looks like a mistake.
Forward Sherjill MacDonald, the team's lone designated player, was signed in July despite a career that suggested he is more of a complementary player than someone who can carry the team on his broad shoulders -- and nothing he has done in Chicago has changed that perception.
He's got the strength and ability to hold up the ball and distribute it to his teammates, as he did on Sunday's goal by Patrick Nyarko. But that idea doesn't work so well if he doesn't have someone near him who can consistently finish. The Fire has had only one double-digit scorer since 2003 -- and Dominic Oduro was traded during the preseason.
Sunday was clearly MacDonald's best game of the season. Possibly because of the calf injury he has struggled to overcome this season, he hasn't yet played a full 90 minutes, and his shot hasn't threatened. It's believed his contract expires in July, with a team option through the end of the season, but he might not finish the season in Chicago if he doesn't produce more.
The current transfer window ends in early May, so there's still time for the Fire front office to find someone before July. It might take some extra money, however, to convince a foreign team to let a good forward go before the end of its season.
This much is certain: On the field and off, the Fire needs someone who can create some buzz, someone who can do for it what Robbie Keane has done for the Los Angeles Galaxy, or even what Thierry Henry has done for the New York Red Bulls.
The new midfielders haven't done much:
The Fire earned kudos when it revamped its midfield by trading separately for Joel Lindpere, Jeff Larentowicz and Dilly Duka. The club is still waiting for those three to live up to their billing.
Lindpere was benched for the game at Sporting Kansas City before missing Sunday's match to go on national team duty for Estonia.
Duka missed Sunday's game because of hamstring tightness, but his lone highlight is a shot rocketed off the post. Beyond that fans really haven't seen the young player with a reputation for taking on attackers 1-on-1.
Larentowicz probably was the most celebrated acquisition, and he was given the captain's armband with Logan Pause sidelined because of injury. But he hasn't been able to control the midfield, and it was a huge letdown to see Juan Agudelo outwork Larentowicz for the ball and then score the third Chivas goal Sunday.
Coach Frank Klopas talked after Sunday's game about making some changes. He might have been talking about the midfield.
Klopas didn't want to use it as an excuse, but he hasn't had the same team in March that he did in February when the Fire won the preseason Carolina Challenge Cup.
The most important absences have been Pause and defender Arne Friedrich, a World Cup veteran. The lack of leadership has been noticed, and it sure would've been valuable to have a couple of defensive-minded players like Friedrich and Pause on the field in the second half against Chivas USA.
Pause was healthy enough to make the game-day roster Sunday, a good sign even if he didn't play, and Friedrich is due back this week after traveling to Germany to rehab his leg injury with his own trainer. Because the Fire has a bye week this weekend, the team has until April 7 to get healthy.
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