Fire defender Ward finding his footing

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Chicago Fire defender Tim Ward was a model of progression during the team's 2009 MLS season. Most matches he showcased continual improvement in his game. Then, his season hit a brick wall when he broke his toe during the 2009 SuperLiga final against Tigres UANL.

Ward missed the latter third of the MLS regular season and Chicago's usual run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

"It was really tough," Ward said. "It just made me want to play more, having to watch so many games at the end of last season, especially the big ones and the playoffs."

Ward had a trying offseason, followed by some rough performances in the early going at the start of the 2010 season. But Ward's game appeared to be in form a couple weeks ago when the Fire topped the Houston Dynamo, 2-0. That was an encouraging sign considering how many defensive changes were made with the outside backs in the early going.

"The first couple of games of the season, you're always going to be a little bit rusty," Ward said. "For me, I hadn't played a game for six months with my foot injury last season. I'm still getting back into it. I had a bad game against San Jose, but I kept working hard, had a good game against Houston, and hopefully I can continue that for the next part of the season."

"Tim Ward has played at a good level, with confidence," Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "These last two matches he's played very good. He has a difficult job because he plays against very good [opposing offensive] players."

On Saturday, when Chicago hits the road to take on Toronto FC, the Fire defense won't be stretched as thin. Left defensive back Krzysztof Krol, who missed last week's Chivas USA matchup while serving a red card suspension, will return to the fray. So what started out as a rotation of outside backs has been a bit more static of a lineup of late. And the improved cohesiveness has shown on the scoreboard.

"We've only allowed one goal in three games, so that's always a good ratio," Ward said of the team's current 2-0-1 run. "We're going away for two games now, and I think if we do the things we've been doing the past couple weeks, we'll be fine. We've been staying tight, we really concentrate on having a block of eight -- two sets of four [defenders and midfielders]. I think as long as we do that, we'll be in good shape."

Last week, with Krol's absence, De los Cobos went with Deris Umanzor at left back. But it is looking like Krolwill return to the starting lineup alongside center backs Wilman Conde and C.J. Brown, and right outside back Ward.

"[Umanzor's] performance is better. He's playing better," De los Cobos said. "He needs some time adapting to MLS, because the players are more strong, more fast, more heavy, and he and [midfielder] Julio Martinez need to adapt to this situation. For these two guys, it's not easy. But I believe they can make it."