<
>

Fire need cohesiveness in critical stretch

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Following the Chicago Fire's scoreless draw against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, one thing was glaringly clear -- New York looked like the tighter, cohesive group.

Saying so does not imply that the Fire do not have that characteristic inside of them. On the contrary, with an acquisition such as a Freddie Ljungberg, that type of talent will bond and energize the 11-man grouping on the pitch.

The Fire are just past the midway point of the season with 16 matches and a 5-5-6 record, and this team has some good pieces in place. But the cohesiveness will need to form relatively quickly for a strong second-half run. And at the moment, the Fire still are on the outside of the postseason picture if the regular season wrapped up today.

"We're now getting to the point of the season where we can't drop many points," Fire defensive midfielder Logan Pause said. "We've got to start making up some ground."

This has been an unusual season to witness in Chicago because the Fire's most recent teams were static. The lineups and returning players were pretty similar. The formation and game plan were relatively unchanged. Former Fire head coach Denis Hamlett had his methods and he pretty much stuck to his guns.

The 2010 season feels like it got a late start, as though the Fire still were in preseason mode several weeks in. From preseason to their current position, Chicago is onto its third goalkeeper. And the third time appears to be the charm with rookie Sean Johnson, who has impressed in the few moments he has had in MLS and non-league play. Two of Johnson's saves this past weekend are up for MLS Save of the Week.

When defender Gonzalo Segares rejoins the Fire, Chicago will switch up its left defensive back position once again -- a position that had a bunch of players in the mix in the early going. Segares is the best choice.

That brings us to the middle and offensive thirds, and a midfield that has dearly missed Patrick Nyarko's creativity and speed. On paper, if Nyarko can patrol the right side, Marco Pappa on the left, with designated players Ljungberg and Nery Castillo in the middle, and either Brian McBride or Collins John up top, that's one lethal offense ...

On paper.

That is just the thing. For the promising upgrades Chicago made in getting two designated players and Segares, this team has not had much of an opportunity to find a set cohesive roster.

The talent is there, but based on this past weekend, New York has adjusted to its changes much more smoothly. Remember, the Red Bulls won only five matches last year.

On Sunday, they were stronger on the ball and stronger with their movement away from the ball. Even when Thierry Henry left the match with a groin injury just before halftime, the Red Bulls worked solidly together following the break. Macoumba Kandji didn't have too many touches in the first half, but in the second he was very involved. Kandji also should have had a goal early in the second half as Chicago played a defensive game the rest of the way.

"I think it's just a combination of we weren't good enough with the ball, keeping possession, to allow our defenders to move up the field," Pause said. "When we turned the ball over, our line was well into our own half, and as guys got more tired, it became a little harder for us to get pressure on the ball. The common theme that usually happens is the team drops so deep. So those are things we're trying to work on."

New York had everything but the victory. The 22-5 shots and 7-1 shots-on-goal advantages were enormously lopsided in the Red Bulls' favor.

Credit should be given to the Fire for making some necessary personnel moves. Fire technical director Frank Klopas maximized on the summer transfer window at a moment when folks were questioning if they had enough to salvage this season and make their customary run into the postseason.

On paper, Chicago looks good. But Sunday showed that Castillo's fitness level is not there. The match showed that the Fire need Nyarko, who continues to battle concussion symptoms. The match showed that they need some more consistency from players such as Pappa, who can dazzle for one game and then have a disappointing effort -- such as Sunday's match -- the next.

First-year Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos has made his share of lineup and formation changes. If Chicago is on the cusp of finding all of the right ingredients, maybe De los Cobos will not have to keep stirring the pot.