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2011 preview: New-look Fire open at Dallas

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- One year ago the Chicago Fire had a vision of attractive and possession-driven play as its successful model.

After a trying 2010 MLS campaign that resulted in a sub-.500 record and a rare shortened season outside of the playoff picture, the Fire are hoping the implementation finally comes to fruition this 2011 season.

The new-look Chicago squad travels to Frisco, Texas, on Saturday to take on 2010 MLS Cup runner-up FC Dallas.

"We've obviously had quite a bit of changes coming into the year, but that's normal -- maybe a few more than usual," Fire captain and defensive midfielder Logan Pause said Friday following training. "But guys have come in and done their job to help move this thing along, so this weekend's a test for us and we're looking forward to it."

All the talk this preseason has surrounded the Fire's new 3-5-2 formation, anchored by a projected starting back line of Cory Gibbs, Josip Mikulic and 2011 first-round draft pick Jalil Anibaba. The scheme represents an effort to create stability with an athletic backfield while emphasizing greater numbers and attacking situations on the other end of the pitch.

A watchful eye will be on the Fire's Uruguayan front line of Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari. In the limited weeks of both players' arrivals, the tandem hopes to bring a combination of attacking, with strong assistance in the middle of the pitch, as well.

"I prefer the freedom, rather than just struggling with the defenders," Chaves said. "I like to have my space. I have a technique that associates with the other guys."

Saturday's game marks the first leg of the Brimstone Cup, which is awarded by the supporters' clubs of both teams. Dallas has won the past nine seasons, and FCD is coming off its most successful campaign.

Dallas posted a 12-2-14 record last season, had a 19-game unbeaten streak and reached the MLS Cup for the first time, before bowing out to the Colorado Rapids in the championship match.

Though Dallas has lost a few pieces from last year's club, including Jeff Cunningham and Atiba Harris, FCD still boasts last year's MVP, David Ferreira. Ferreira posted eight goals and 13 assists last year in regular-season play.

"David Ferreira's a fantastic player, and he showed that last year, that much of the way this team plays and their tempo goes through him," Pause said. "He's definitely someone that we have our eye on. Between our back line and us in the midfield, we're going to do what we can to minimize his touches and to minimize him in dangerous parts."

The Fire are looking for midfielder Marco Pappa to have one of his typically strong starts on the offensive end. Last year, Pappa led Chicago with 10 goals, and seven goals came within the first 15 games of the season.

Chicago is coming off a 9-12-9 season in 2010, as the Fire missed out on the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. The team went through a major overhaul this offseason, particularly at forward and on defense. In fact, seven of Chicago's starting players during last year's season opener against the New York Red Bulls are no longer with the team.

Earlier this week, the league announced that Dallas defender Jair Benitez would be suspended for this Saturday's game for spitting on Houston Dynamo midfielder Geoff Cameron's face in Houston's 4-0 preseason victory on Feb. 12. Dallas defenders Kyle Davies (ankle) and Edson Edward (ACL) also are out, and defender Ugo Ihemelu is questionable (sports hernia).

Fire forward Calen Carr (concussion), midfielder Mike Banner (Achilles tendinitis) and defender Steven Kinney (Achilles repair) are all out in this week's MLS Injury Report.

Fire's reserves debut on April 24: The MLS relaunched its reserve league after a two-year hiatus, and the Fire reserves will make their 2011 debut at 9 a.m. Sunday, April 24, at Toyota Park. The Fire reserves play a 10-game schedule -- five home and five on the road. Chicago's other home matches at Toyota Park include Sporting Kansas City (May 17), FC Dallas (July 5), the Colorado Rapids (Aug. 28) and Real Salt Lake (Sept. 6).