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Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Fire get back to grind against Union

By Charlie Corr

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire face four Eastern Conference foes over their next five matches. Four of their six regular-season matches in August are on the home pitch at Toyota Park.

It goes without saying that this is crunch time for the last-place Fire (2-6-12, 18 points).

Chicago hosts the Philadelphia Union (8-5-7, 31 points) on Wednesday at Toyota Park, and the Fire need to achieve maximum points to try to salvage their season.

The entire Fire organization truly had an All-Star break, with no Chicago players taking part in the midseason match between the MLS All-Stars and Manchester United last week. Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas sees an energized group heading into this stretch.

"The team has come back with a very good attitude and is eager to get things going again," Klopas said. "We all understand what's at stake right now. Mentally and physically, we have to put everything into these next 14 games."

All eyes will be on the Fire midfield to see if their new signings play prominent roles in this second half of the season. Sebastian Grazzini got some minutes during the Fire's 3-1 loss to Man U on July 23, and Klopas plans to roll with the Argentine midfielder the rest of the way.

"He's worked very hard and we've worked on different things with him," Klopas said. "It is my intention to put him in for these last 14 games. Grazzini's job is to get the ball into the final third, closer to the goal, and create the final pass. That's where he's dangerous."

Defensive midfielder Pavel Pardo signed with Chicago last week. While Klopas did not pinpoint how much time Pardo could see right off the bat, the Fire head coach wants to get him onto the pitch as soon as possible.

"He has a lot of experience and has played for many years, so it doesn't take a lot for him to find a rhythm," Klopas said. "He might not be 100 percent, but he's looked good in this short week."

The Fire face a Union team that will have a different look up front. Philadelphia head coach Peter Nowak announced publicly that scoring leader Carlos Ruiz no longer is part of the team. That puts the offensive focus on Sebastien Le Toux, who has not found his form of a year ago, and 2010's top draft pick Danny Mwanga.

"Le Toux is always a threat," Klopas said. "He has a great work rate and is a very busy player -- someone you have to be aware of. That kid Mwanga has a lot of good qualities. He's strong, fast, and when he has open space he can beat you. It's going to be a different look for them. Ruiz was more of an inside-the-box threat."

Philadelphia dropped to second in the East standings with a 2-1 home loss to the Colorado Rapids on Friday and sits three points behind the East-leading Columbus Crew (9-6-7, 34 points)

The Fire will be without defender Yamith Cuesta, who is suspended for Wednesday's match. Cuesta picked up two yellow cards in a six-minute span during a 1-0 home loss against the Portland Timbers on July 17. That means Josip Mikulic should be the fill-in to team up with Cory Gibbs at center back.

The Union is in a similar boat on defense with Sheanon Williams also suspended for the match after receiving two yellow cards during Philadelphia's loss to Colorado.

The Fire hold the league's worst home record, posting a 1-2-6 mark at Toyota Park. That lone win was their home opener on March 26.

Klopas will need to manage his players accordingly this week with two games in a five-day stretch. The Fire travel to Vancouver to take on the expansion Whitecaps on Sunday.

"We're looking at this one because it's important to make sure we take care of this game first," Klopas said of the Philadelphia match. "We'll see where the guys are physically Sunday because it's a long trip [to Vancouver]."