BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire's lone victory of 2011 was during their home opener on March 26 against Sporting Kansas City.
K.C. has spent its first 10 matches on the road, but Sporting finally get to play on the home front when they open Livestrong Sporting Park on Thursday against the Fire (9 p.m. kick-off, ESPN2). The new 18,500-capacity facility and the long-awaited home opener for K.C. certainly will create a festive atmosphere.
"It's a beautiful stadium and it's exciting, with a lot of energy," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said Wednesday following training. "From a mental standpoint, we've got to be ready from the start."
"If we step out there and play our game and deal with the pressures in the first 15 minutes, I think we can calm the crowd down and play soccer," Fire midfielder Corben Bone said. "It's going to be a great venue and I can't wait. It's going to be exciting. But I think we can use that to our advantage and get up for it ourselves, come out with a lot of energy and hopefully play good enough soccer where the fans are not going to matter really."
Chicago (1-4-7) is four points ahead of last-place Sporting (1-6-3) in the Eastern Conference standings. The Fire start a three-game road trip that also includes the Columbus Crew on Sunday and the New England Revolution on June 18.
The Fire's ongoing winless streak has reached 10 games (0-4-6), though Chicago is coming off a strong defensive effort during a scoreless draw against Seattle Sounders FC. Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson posted his first shutout of the season with three saves as he has reacquired the starting slot.
Defensive lapses had been a regular occurrence for much of the season, including Chicago's lone win over K.C. and especially during another stadium-opening match -- a 4-2 loss at the Portland Timbers' Jeld-Wen Field. Following that April 14 match, Johnson lost the No. 1 goalkeeper status to Jon Conway. But Johnson has reacquired the starting job for the past two matches, posting draws against the San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle.
"I can only get better and look back at that stuff and try and improve," Johnson said. "I think I'm definitely getting into a rhythm. It's important to try and find a little consistency and stay at that level. That's a challenge for myself and the team, as well, to build on the last game and make it better going forward."
The Fire have not had a moment this season where the defensive and offensive sides of the ball are clicking simultaneously. Chicago is averaging only one goal per game over the 10-game winless streak (the 4-2 loss to Portland included own-goals from each team). Forward Diego Chaves' early-season scoring surge has since been held in check, and Cristian Nazarit is just working his way into the mix.
"He's still adjusting to the league -- the physicality of the players is stronger and the pace of the game is faster," Klopas said of Nazarit. "But his game fitness has been better, and every game he's going to get better."
The Fire created a few good looks last week during the first half against Seattle, but Chicago relied on some optimistic long balls and did not pose much of a threat in the second half.
Now that Patrick Nyarko is seeing some time again on the pitch following his concussion injury, and fellow Ghanaian Dominic Oduro has provided a regular dose of energy, that speedy flank combination could generate some much-needed offense as the Fire continue to play without Guatemalan midfielder Marco Pappa (CONCACAF Gold Cup duty).
"We need to concentrate on our passes, switch the ball and not get caught on the counter," Bone said. "If we can use Dominic's speed late in the game whenever their defense is tired, we can catch them on the counter, as well."