Sister Cities comes at perfect time for Fire

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire's Sister Cities International Cup opens Wednesday night, with the MLS side hosting Paris Saint-Germain at 7 p.m. at Toyota Park. Legia Warsaw and Red Star Belgrade play each other afterward, and Wednesday's winners will meet in a championship match on Saturday.

"We're very fortunate to play these games, and hopefully it brings out the best in us," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "We are going into those games with the mind-set of winning them, and hopefully we win this tournament so it gives us a great deal of confidence."

Confidence and momentum are two things the Fire would like to have back on their side when they resume league play. With eight games in the book and a 2-4-2 record to show for their efforts, Chicago needs to get back on track following back-to-back disheartening matches against Toronto FC (a 4-1 road loss) and the Kansas City Wizards (a 2-2 draw, despite having a 2-0 lead).

The timing of the Sister Cities bodes well. The players will maintain their approach as though this is a typical league game. But it also opens the door to try a few other players, and it's an opportunity for some to respond with a stronger effort..

After this past weekend's draw against Kansas City, some Fire viewers probably were taken aback by Chicago's attack-from-the-back execution -- a much different approach from head coach Carlos de los Cobos' usual game plan and more similar to his predecessor Denis Hamlett's setup. According to Nyarko, it was by design to compensate for the smaller pitch.

"It was absolutely, totally due to the size of the pitch," Nyarko said. "Going into the game we knew that Kansas City was at home and they've been playing on that field forever. They know how to play on it. We wanted to hang in there. If we do not try to play out of the back, we get punished. Once we got that early goal, we used that as our advantage and tried to sit back."

The Fire were minutes away from pulling it off, but the Wizards found the equalizer. And that is the ongoing saga of Chicago's season early on, where the team has had several matches where it was on the cusp of putting together a pretty good run in league play. So in trying to figure out where the Fire have come up short, the general reaction is to point to individual play or key moments where there is a breakdown on defense or a lull in attacking.

Without having all of the players miked up for all of us to take a listen, there is some curiosity toward the team's approach as they hover around the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. And in a bit of irony, the one area that players have voiced some mixed opinions publicly is team communication.

Nyarko said Tuesday that there has been improvement in that department, but there needs to be more.

"A team with low communication on the field is basically useless, and [de los Cobos] is trying to instill that [approach] in us," Nyarko said. "I don't think we're there yet. We're improving. It's something that is at the top of our list. Communication definitely helps us. You talk about the games we've won so far this year, we haven't played perfect games, and I don't believe that you need to have a perfect game necessarily to win it. But you do have to concentrate for 90 minutes, and you have to keep communicating and keep talking. We are a team and we need to work for each other. We're improving [communication], but we're not there yet."

The Sister Cities is a nice concept and something that the Fire and the fans have every reason to embrace starting Wednesday. But at the same time this is a vital stretch for Chicago to do some soul searching and piece together a couple of complete matches.

We knew there would be some growing pains with all of the offseason moves and some young blood taking on bigger roles. We knew this was not the same team that started the 2009 season with an 11-game undefeated streak and had most of its '08 squad doing the brunt of the work.

Nyarko hit the nail on the head by saying that the Sister Cities tourney has the potential to be a big confidence boost. An MLS season always has its share of peaks and valleys, and returning to league play with a successful tournament could be a useful ingredient for the Fire.