New-look Fire face difficult test in L.A.

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Following a three-week hiatus from league play, the Chicago Fire are back in the MLS grind for the remainder of the year when they travel to Los Angeles to take on the Galaxy at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at The Home Depot Center.

The Fire made some big changes toward the end of July with the addition of two designated players in Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg. And now Chicago is met with a significant test facing an L.A. squad that is leading the Western Conference with a 12-2-4 record and 40 points.

"It's definitely the biggest game of the year," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "Even before the season, we were looking up to this game. They're an elite team and pretty much dominating the entire league. We have our work cut out for us, especially over there."

The Fire (4-4-5) are moving forward from a June 29 to July 20 stretch that included a U.S. Open Cup loss, two league losses and a 1-2 record in SuperLiga group play.

"I trust we'll have a good second half of the season," Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "With Nery Castillo coming to play with us, I think he'll be good for the team and help us in some situations in the attack. ... We [missed out on] a lot of points in the first half of the season. We need to try to recover and meet our objective to qualify [for the playoffs]."

The potential debut of the Fire's DPs is split for Sunday. Ljungberg is a game-time option for De los Cobos. But Castillo did not travel with the team to the west coast.

The Fire's starting goalkeeper situation has been deciphered all week, and De los Cobos' decision remains unknown for Sunday. Typical starting goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra has not been in the net since a 5-1 SuperLiga loss to Monarcas Morelia on July 14. Rookie goalkeeper Sean Johnson manned the net for the final two SuperLiga matches, and he had some reps with the first team during the course of training this week.

The best news for Chicago is a healthier roster to work with. The Fire ended SuperLiga with only four bench players in their finale. On the MLS injury report this week, the only person still out for Chicago is midfielder John Thorrington.

If Nyarko is up to speed (he was out for several weeks because of concussion symptoms), his creative ability will be the team's strongest pick-me-up heading into the match against the Galaxy.

Galaxy forward Edson Buddle has been dangerous this season and is on pace for a career year. He already has 12 goals, just three shy of his career-high 15 goals set in 2008. And Landon Donovan is only two assists away from matching his career-best 13 assists in 2007.

The Fire might be catching the Galaxy at the right moment. L.A. has not been as invincible as it once was earlier this year en route to a 10-0-2 start to the 2010 campaign. In league play, the Galaxy are coming off a fortunate 2-2 draw against the San Jose Earthquakes. They also posted a 2-0 loss against the New England Revolution on July 10. And most recently L.A. was trounced by the Puerto Rico Islanders, 4-1, in CONCACAF Champions League action.