In a vacuum, a 1-1 draw with New York City FC on opening day wasn’t a terrible result. The Fire emerged with a point and a strong finish would typically leave fans encouraged that they could put up a fight against the Philadelphia Union next week.
But injuries completely change that narrative.
— Alex Calabrese (@amcalabrese12) March 5, 2023
It’s not abnormal that in the summer or fall, an MLS roster may run thin due to injuries. This happened to the Fire last season when the absences began to pile up, and Ezra Hendrickson had to get creative with some of his lineups. Homegrown kids got some opportunities to sit on the bench and get spot minutes with the first team, and the team’s depth was tested. But it’s a tremendous misfortune that the Fire already find themselves in an injury pickle after just one game of the regular season.
It only took 14 minutes into the season opener before star midfielder Fede Navarro had to be helped off with a hamstring injury. He’ll be out for a few weeks and will miss a few matches, including this weekend against the Union. The next man to go down with a hamstring injury was DP Jairo Torres, who started next to Navarro in central midfield. He went down right before the half, and could be out for as many as 6-8 weeks, a significant blow for someone who battled injuries last season, and was coming off of a strong preseason and promising first half. Then, early in the second half, standout winger Chris Mueller pulled up with an injury and asked to be substituted. Mueller was the team’s most productive attacker last season, so he would have been a huge blow. He’ll be available this weekend, but it was still not a good sign to see him go down. Chris Brady also missed opening day through injury; he was back in training with the team this week and should be available.
“It’s going to be a competitive situation at all positions,” Hendrickson told the media in his weekly press conference. “The difference between this team and the team last year is that we have lots of different options.”
Ezra says it’s still yet to be determined who will step into the lineup, so let’s take a look at who could best replace the casualties in midfield.
With both Fede Navarro and Jairo Torres out, the starting pairing from opening day will have to be completely replaced. Mauricio Pineda and Gastón Giménez are the most natural replacements in that position, but Giménez is not at full fitness (he was only greenlit to play 30 minutes last weekend) and Pineda was also questionable going into opening day. While a Pineda-Giménez pairing is feasible, the latter would not be able to go the full 90 minutes, and it’s important to have a backup plan if either player has to come out early. Most likely, Ezra will go with Fabian Herbers in place of of Giménez in the double pivot from the start. It is not Herbers’ natural position, but he has filled in there a couple of times for the Fire and Ezra seems to trust him. In addition, he scored the Fire’s only goal last week and had a very good performance, so it’s fair enough that he would be rewarded.
Since Jairo Torres is out for up to two months, the midfield depth will have to step up beyond just playing Herbers out of position. The coaching staff has been a little bit hesitant to roll out inexperienced teenagers over the last year, but there is one who could be helpful at the present moment. Sergio Oregel, 17, is one of the Fire’s top prospects and can play both as a 6 and as an 8. He is a good fit for the double pivot, so the injury breakout seems like a great chance to give him some minutes. Oregel missed the NYCFC game with illness, but he should be back this week. Ezra has rarely ever given such inexperienced players minutes in road games, so it seems unlikely that Sergio will get to play, let alone start, but given how thin the midfield position is right now, it may be necessary to give the talented teenager some playing time earlier in the season than expected. Either way, his emergence over the course of this season will provide competition for minutes for the other midfielders.
Chris Brady was the other headline from the press conference today. The 19-year-old goalkeeper missed the opening game against NYCFC with a minor thigh tweak, but he’s set to start against Philadelphia on Saturday. Ezra confirmed that he is ahead of the competition as far as the goalkeeping position goes, and he’ll be ready for a big performance against the highly-touted Union team on the road.
How should the Fire replace their injured starters? Be sure to let us know in the comments and on Twitter!