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Fire's defense salvaging regular points

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire offense has not regularly produced over the past month, but the team's defense has turned into a saving grace for points.

Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas has been at the helm for five matches. Chicago has allowed only one goal and has garnered at least a point per game and a 1-0-4 record since the firing of Carlos de los Cobos.

One of the most apparent adjustments that Klopas made was moving to man marking versus zonal marking on set pieces. The Fire have yet to allow a set piece goal under Klopas.

"Set pieces have been a key," Fire defender Gonzalo Segares said. "Since we changed to man marking, that is one of the big reasons why we're doing better."

"That's just one area where we had given up goals, and we needed a change," Klopas said. "Obviously it was something that wasn't working. We changed it. We put guys on the post and stuff like that to make it comfortable for our goalkeeper when he comes out. Man marking suits us better."

The Fire (2-4-10) are preparing for a home match against the New York Red Bulls (5-3-8) on Sunday at Toyota Park. New York is coming off a 4-2 loss to Seattle Sounders FC. Of the four goals the Red Bulls allowed, one was directly off of a set piece and two were generated shortly after a set piece clearance.

"In set pieces, man marking is crucial," former Fire defender and current Real Salt Lake assistant coach C.J. Brown said last week. "You need a body on people, and unless you have 11 guys who are fully focused and good in the air and good at attacking the ball, it is hard to play zonal on set pieces."

The Fire's defensive numbers have certainly changed since De los Cobos' departure. The Fire gave up 19 goals in their first 11 games, and in seven of those matches they allowed two or more goals.

Defending on set pieces is just one element. In the first third of the season, the Fire briefly tried a three-man back line, they switched goalkeepers, and injuries also played a part in the everyday defensive lineup.

Now, sophomore goalkeeper Sean Johnson has been back at the helm, and his form continues to improve. The combination of Yamith Cuesta and Cory Gibbs at center back has been steady enough that a healthier Josip Mikulic could have a difficult time getting back into the starting role. Right back Jalil Anibaba has endured some early pushes from opposing offenses in the past couple matches. Segares has had some ups and downs, but he's certainly improved from last year. Segares had a difficult game against New England's Sainey Nyassi, but rebounded well in this past match against Real Salt Lake.

"I think the product overall has improved," Klopas said. "We have urgency when we lose the ball and we stay compact and put pressure and close things down to win the ball back."

The defense has kept opposing teams to a limited goal output, but the front line and midfield have regularly come up short in the offensive third. Wednesday's match against Salt Lake has turned into the norm for Chicago over the past several weeks. Three of the Fire's past five matches have resulted in scoreless draws.

"We were sluggish, not very good with the ball, especially in the middle of the field," Klopas said after the Salt Lake match. "We need to be quicker because they are a team that overplays the ball, and the minute they lose it they put tremendous pressure on to win it back.

"I felt the second half was better for us," Klopas said. "We moved the ball better, we were looking to switch the point of attack, to attack the ball from wide spots. Gonzalo made a lot of runs forward to help [Patrick] Nyarko on that side and create some 2-vs.-1 situations. We pushed the game, and unfortunately in the end we only got one point. We've got to keep working and building."