Fire get 1st look at expansion Whitecaps

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- This is not quite a do-or-die part of the MLS season, but the Chicago Fire have quickly dug themselves into a hole over a five-game winless streak.

May represents a critical month for the Fire, who are second-to-last in the Eastern Conference. With three of Chicago's four May matches against teams with losing records, it is the club's best situation to make up some ground.

One of those teams is expansion Vancouver Whitecaps FC, which the Fire hosts for the first time Saturday at Toyota Park. Vancouver's defense has allowed the second-most goals (14) among MLS clubs, but Chicago's offense has been in a little funk with only three goals in its past three games.

"We need to win -- it's very important for us to win Saturday," Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "The guys are trying to finish, but that's part of the game. Sometimes it doesn't happen."

The Fire (1-3-3) have yet to earn a league victory since their 3-2 home opener over Sporting Kansas City on March 26. Chicago instituted a 4-1-4-1 formation last week during a 1-1 road draw against the defending MLS champion Colorado Rapids. It is expected that De los Cobos will tout a similar approach and lineup on Saturday. The lineup against Colorado featured first-time Fire starter Daniel Paladini and 2010 draft pick Corben Bone in the midfield. De los Cobos also liked playing Gaston Puerari within that midfield group.

"I like him [in the midfield] because he's coming from behind to arrive in the box and can always create an opportunity on net," De los Cobos said of Puerari. "With Gaston, Daniel and Corben, that's the creation that we are looking for. There were moments in the last game where we had chances to score, and we had the opportunity to put [a lineup] together with some players with specific qualities and skills, like offensive build and quickness with the ball."

One likely addition should be defender Cory Gibbs, who was in full training on Thursday for the first time in about two weeks after suffering a hamstring injury.

"I feel like I'm at full strength," Gibbs said. "Day by day, every hour that goes by, I feel better and better."

The defense and midfield have taken significant hits in the injury department. Gibbs appears to be back in full swing, but center back Josip Mikulic injured his shoulder in the Rapids game. Captain and defensive midfielder Logan Pause injured his hamstring and Michael Videira suffered a concussion.

While Vancouver (1-4-3) has allowed its share of goals, so has Chicago. The Fire have given up 13 tallies, including 10 goals in April en route to a 0-3-2 mark.

"It will get better," Gibbs said of the defense. "We're just trying to progress. Reducing the amount of goals that we give up per game and taking what we do in training as seriously in terms of intensity, this spell is going to wear off fairly soon."

The Fire signed 20-year-old Colombian forward Cristian Nazarit this week. He joined the team in Thursday's training, but is not going to be available Saturday. De los Cobos did say that there is a possibility that Nazarit could be an option the following week if all goes well.

"He's a good player -- strong, smart, witty," Gibbs said of Nazarit. "This first session [on Thursday] was good for him, and I think he'll be a key asset for us in the future."

There are some Fire-related ties within the Whitecaps. But former midfielder John Thorrington is out with a calf strain. And it turns out that one-time Fire PDL defender and University of Illinois-Chicago alum Jay DeMerit did not make the trip with the team as he battles a groin injury. On the sidelines, though, will be a familiar face in former Fire head coach and assistant coach Denis Hamlett.

Hamlett, who was let go by Chicago following the 2009 season, spent a year away from MLS before landing a position as an assistant for the Whitecaps. Hamlett had coached the Illinois Institute of Technology's men's soccer team for one season.

"It was good for me in the sense that I needed to re-energize myself and spend some time away from the daily grind of being in MLS," Hamlett said about a week after his hiring with the Whitecaps. "But at the same token, I was watching a lot of the games and was ready to get back to the coaching world. I enjoyed my time with IIT. I kept in touch with [Whitecaps director of soccer operations] Tommy Soehn and it developed rapidly."