Fire clash with K.C. in home opener

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The two MLS teams that were atop last year's playoff-less panel square off this Saturday as the Chicago Fire host Sporting Kansas City at Toyota Park. Sporting K.C., previously known as the Wizards, ranked ninth last season with 39 points, and the Fire had the 10th-best points total last season with 36.

Not only did the postseason evade the Fire last season, but Chicago also hopes to turn around 2010's lackluster 4-4-7 regular-season record at Toyota Park.

Sporting K.C. (1-0-0) presents another strong offensive challenge for the Fire (0-0-1), who were able to fend off 2010 MLS runner-up FC Dallas last week with a 1-1 draw on the road. Kansas City sports an attack that features Omar Bravo, Kei Kamara and C.J. Sapong, a tandem that had some part of every goal during its 3-2 road win over Chivas USA to open the season. Bravo had two of the three goals.

"These guys are very similar [to Dallas]," Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "Bravo is more of a forward and he doesn't drop too much. Kamara is very fast. And Sapong is a strong guy -- very young, but very strong."

"It's going to be a bit similar in terms of Dallas attacking with so many numbers," Fire defender Cory Gibbs said. "But the thing is Dallas attacked way more than what I think Kansas City will. They're going to be a threat still. So I think if we stay positive and stay organized defensively, we'll have our chances countering against that."

In the first regular-season game and throughout the preseason, the Fire defense has been the featured focal point. In the opener, Chicago held an aggressive Dallas team off the board in the second half, and it was only one defensive lapse on Milton Rodriguez's goal from Zach Loyd in the first half that prevented the Fire from securing three points instead of one.

"You've got to give credit where credit is due," Fire defender Jalil Anibaba said. "Zach Loyd did a very good job in getting in between me and Bratislav [Ristic] and then slipping the ball in to the back post."

Last week at Dallas, Fire midfielder and 2010 assists leader Patrick Nyarko came off the bench late in the first half for Ristic. Earlier this week, it was unclear from De los Cobos if he would again utilize Nyarko off the bench or start him. But with Ristic nursing a hip injury and Uruguayan forward Gaston Puerari missing out on some training this week, the odds of Nyarko getting into the starting 11 appear promising.

"I need to make some decisions with some of the guys, and maybe they don't start the match," De los Cobos said. "But everybody needs to stay ready to play because we are a team. These are the kinds of players that we need -- team players. Patrick is a very good guy. I love Patrick, and he's a very good player. Right now, I don't know our lineup. Normally we try to keep it very close to the same lineup when the match was good."

Chicago had a winless campaign against Kansas City last season that included a 2-2 draw on May 15 at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, and a 2-0 loss on Oct. 12 at Toyota Park.

What to look forward to at Toyota Park:

New intro: The Fire had a difficult task of producing a strong follow-up to last year's introduction video, which was driven by Hans Zimmer's "The Dark Knight" score. But the Fire pulled off another pumped-up piece with this 2011 intro video, capped off by the Clint Mansell-composed "Requiem for a Dream."

New eats: Levy Restaurants has a few menu additions this year at Toyota Park, including Jake Melnick's Wings with Red Savina and Bhut Jolokia hot peppers; Fire Hat Nachos served in a fireman's hat; and a new creation called the Walking Taco, made with corn chips topped with ground beef taco meat, nacho cheese sauce and more, served in a corn chip bag. Sounds interesting.

New attendance marks: It is difficult to say how many people will brave the low-30s weather for Saturday's game, but one thing is clear -- Fire season ticket levels are at an all-time high. Section 8 Chicago, the independent supporters' association for the Fire, surpassed 800 season ticket holders, which is more than double last year's figure (389) and nine times more than its 2006 figure (89). Fire owner Andrew Hauptman said Thursday that the team has about 5,000 season ticket holders in the books.

New lineup: Last season's home opener Fire roster was almost entirely different than this Saturday's potential starting lineup. In the 2010 home opener, a forgettable 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on April 10 that included multiple defensive lapses, there were eight Fire starters who are no longer with the team: Andrew Dykstra, Deris Umanzor, Tim Ward, Wilman Conde, C.J. Brown, Peter Lowry, Collins John and Brian McBride. The returning three players who started in this match were Nyarko, Baggio Husidic and Marco Pappa. This year's captain, defensive midfielder Logan Pause, did not play in last year's home opener as a left knee sprain kept him out of the lineup for four straight matches.