Chicago Fire: Cory Gibbs
Fire goalkeeper Jay Nolly played the full 90 minutes in his preseason Fire debut, allowing one goal on a header by España’s Edder Gonzalez.
Orr Barouch iced the game for the Fire with a goal in the 88th minute.
Defenders Cory Gibbs and Gonzalo Segares missed the match after getting banged up on Wednesday in the Fire’s 3-0 win over Florida Gulf Coast University.
The Fire will return to Chicago on Sunday before a trip to Ventura, Calif. on Wednesday. While in California, the Fire will play preseason games against Chivas USA (Feb. 11), the Portland Timbers (Feb. 15) and the San Jose Earthquakes (Feb. 18).
Houston's misstep was Chicago's offensive answer, particularly in the final two thirds of the season, as Oduro received ESPNChicago's vote for the team's most valuable player in 2011.
Oduro netted 12 goals, becoming the first Fire player since Damani Ralph in 2004 to reach double-digit tallies in a season. That number more than doubled Oduro's previous-best five goals in 2008 with FC Dallas and last year with the Dynamo. And that goal production tied him for fifth among the league leaders.
But Oduro was not exactly a runaway MVP choice for this team. Throughout a decent portion of this season his finishing ability was questioned, starting the minute he was brought in to play for the Fire. MVP consideration also went to Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, despite his limited playing time. Grazzini was hands down the best production-per-minute player on the team.
Grazzini scored five goals and added four assists in only 780 minutes. Triple that production for a full season of play and that is not just team MVP-worthy -- that is league MVP consideration. But the bottom line is Grazzini only saw the pitch for 11 games, and the Fire desperately needed more minutes out of him to reach the postseason. Unfortunately for Chicago, Grazzini's hamstring issues limited his time, both in regular-season play and in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The speedy Oduro missed his share of high-percentage scoring opportunities, but he was responsible for more than a quarter of the Fire's goals this season. His offense picked up the slack for a team that also was expecting more from midfielder Marco Pappa, who struggled mightily (other than his hat trick against Real Salt Lake) following his CONCACAF Gold Cup stint.
ESPNChicago's choice for team defender of the year was center back Cory Gibbs. He was the most consistent player from start to finish. And a bulk of Gibbs' value has to be toward mentoring a young defensive group that included Jalil Anibaba (23), Yamith Cuesta (22) and Josip Mikulic (25).
Following C.J. Brown's retirement and Wilman Conde's departure after the 2010 season, there were plenty of defensive question marks heading into this year. Gibbs filled a needed role to lead the back line, and that appears to be the area on the pitch with the least concern heading into this offseason.
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson also was considered for the defensive honor. Johnson struggled at the start of the season and briefly lost his starting job to Jon Conway. But the second-year goalkeeper improved immensely down the stretch, posting seven shutouts on the campaign.
With the Fire's 2011 season in the books, the focus once again turns toward the sidelines, where Fire technical director and interim head coach Frank Klopas posted an 8-5-10 record after replacing Carlos de los Cobos.
Chicago missed the playoffs for a second straight season, but the team rebounded in the final third of the campaign to climb close to the postseason picture.
So will Fire management remove the interim tag and keep Klopas as the head coach? Will he focus squarely on the technical side while the organization once again goes through the routine of an extensive coaching search?
Fire personnel certainly feel that the right person for the job already is in place with Klopas.
"There's nobody else who should be in that position," Fire defender Cory Gibbs said. "I don't say that just as a player when I speak the truth. I think he interacts with the team well. And he has a lot of heart and a lot of passion. He gets us ready for games. What more do you want from a coach? We're the ones playing, and we just have to follow his guidance and go out there."
"I think Frank has done a fantastic job," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "I think that he knows this group. He had his hand in bringing most of the guys -- if not all the guys -- here. And I think he has done everything that has been asked of him and more. That's up to him and management whether he wants to continue, whether he wants to move back into a front office role. I've loved every second playing for him. I think he's a guy that understands this league and gets the players. I'm just so happy for him how we finished the year."
Pause said after Saturday's season-ending victory over the Columbus Crew that there have been no early indications of what Klopas' future role will be.
"Honestly, our entire focus has been on trying to make the playoffs," Pause said. "Those aren't things that we have discussed. It hasn't been on my mind. We were just trying to put our heads down and make a push to get into the playoffs. I'm sure management will now evaluate and try to figure out what's the next step."
The common line used heading into this future coaching speculation is "what's best for the Fire." Klopas' tone has changed regarding the position. Several years ago before he was the team's technical director, he wanted to be an MLS coach. When he took the interim role after De los Cobos' firing, Klopas admitted he did not want the role, but was willing to do whatever it took to help the team.
Now Klopas expresses more of a "we'll see" feeling toward the question, saying on Saturday how much he enjoyed guiding this group of players toward a successful stretch run that also included an appearance in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Klopas also said that he will "be back somewhere. I don't know where exactly."
The indications certainly point toward Klopas maintaining some vital role with the club.
"As a player you always want somebody with experience and knowledge of the game," Gibbs said. "He's done a lot with the Fire, and what better person can step in and be a coach for us? We're happy with him. I can speak for the team, obviously. If it's my say, we want him here. So we'll see what happens next year."
What the Fire should do: The Fire's record under Klopas was respectable this year. His team's performance during his tenure spread across a full season would have been more than enough for a postseason berth. If the Fire managed to sneak into this year's playoffs, they could have been a dangerous sleeper.
That brings us to what Klopas and the Fire have done on the technical side over the past couple of seasons, and it is more than fair to question how things were put in place. There were some good acquisitions along the way, particularly in-season this year. But there are many noteworthy blemishes that will stick with Klopas, specifically the two-year luring process to bring in complete bust Nery Castillo, the failed De los Cobos experiment, and affecting the Fire the most this season was the inability to sign a stable central midfielder during the previous offseason when everyone knew that was a weak spot on the roster.
Klopas has made these two statements a regular part of his lingo: It takes time for things to gel, and he says he will do whatever is in the organization's best interest to help the team. So if Klopas and the Fire hold true to those words, why bring in another coach who might have a different vision and style than what Klopas has in place? Do the Fire want to subject themselves to another growing period by bringing in a sixth coach in as many years?
Klopas needs the interim tag removed and stay on board as head coach. Director of player personnel Mike Jeffries can handle the technical side. The Fire can save the extra hours that go into a tedious coaching search and focus squarely on piecing together the 2012 team, which shouldn't need the complete overhaul that went into the previous offseason.
It seems like a no-brain decision to make. Besides, it does not appear that there is a bevy of top-notch candidates with a strong MLS coaching pedigree who are available to come in.
Fire forward Diego Chaves scored his second game-winning goal in as many games and Fire defender Jalil Anibaba had two goals as Chicago topped the Columbus Crew, 3-2, on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 20,237 at Toyota Park.
The Fire completed the season with 9-9-16 mark (43 points), but Chicago missed the postseason for a second straight year and the third time in the team's 14-season history.
"Obviously we're disappointed not to be in the playoffs because that was our goal from the beginning," Klopas said. "But I feel very good at this point of the season where we are as a team. There's a lot to build from this."
As the Fire move into next season, the first major question is whether they will remove Klopas' interim tag and have him continue as the team's head coach.
"In the next couple weeks we're going to sit down as an organization and make the best decision going forward for the Fire," Klopas said. "But I've enjoyed every single second of my professional job, especially what I did now as the interim coach. I really enjoyed it with this group, because I've always believed in this group."
On Saturday, Chaves provided another game-winner following his dramatic stoppage-time goal against D.C. United the previous week. In the 81st minute against the Crew, Chaves provided a tally one minute after Columbus' Dilly Duka netted an equalizer on a botched defensive clearance.
Following the Crew goal, the Fire's Dominic Oduro was on the attack and ripped a shot from the right side, forcing Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer to dive to the right for the save. Chaves ran on in and tallied the unassisted score for the 3-2 win.
Anibaba had a solid day on the offensive side with the first two goals of his young MLS career. Anibaba gave the Fire a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute off of a Pavel Pardo assist, cutting in front of Crew defender Julius James and heading the ball past Hesmer.
Anibaba then netted his second goal in the 30th minute, coming up with a difficult header that was redirected toward the far right corner of the goal for a 2-0 lead. Fellow defender Cory Gibbs assisted from the left side.
"It was a good service out wide from Cory," Anibaba said. "I pointed to the spot and he literally put it right there. It was just a matter of me getting on the end of a good service."
Columbus fell to 13-13-8 (47 points), but the Crew prepares for the postseason.
The Fire put together a strong second-half run. Still, there were quite a few of those league-high 16 draws that could have turned into additional points.
"We made as hard of a push as we could have," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "Obviously it's a little bittersweet because we want to continue to play. You want to put yourself with a chance to make the playoffs and compete, and try to win a trophy. That was one of our goals that we didn't succeed with. But I think it is a silver lining and it feels as good as it can."
Analysis: The Fire's playoff fate already was sealed heading into Saturday, but Chicago made a strong enough statement in improving to .500. The Fire also improved to 6-3-8 at Toyota Park this season, a home mark that is an improvement from recent years.
Going forward, there is the sentiment that Chicago has the bulk of its plan in place, which was a complete reversal from the previous offseason. The next few weeks should be interesting to see what decisions the Fire make about keeping Klopas, retaining the likes of midfielders Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini (who was out Saturday with his hamstring injury) and going elsewhere to find some other pieces -- perhaps another striker and more midfield depth.
The Fire progressed well during the second half of the season, but they need to establish the postseason standard that was a given year in and year out. Missing this year's playoffs certainly is a bitter pill to swallow, especially considering this year's playoffs expanded to 10 teams.
Chicago (8-9-16, 40 points) has come a long way during the second half of the season to even be a part of the postseason dialogue over the past several weeks. So the Fire would like to maintain that trend with one final positive result heading into 2012.
"The most important thing, and our focus, has to be on making sure we finish the season strong," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "We're playing at home against a very good team -- a big rival of ours. It's just important to continue to be building and getting better every game."
"I feel like we're playing for something," Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said. "We're playing for three points, playing for a win, playing for our fans who have been with us all year through torrid times."
Toyota Park will have a sellout crowd on hand, and the Fire for the most part had found some life on the home front over the past couple of months. The Fire had a four-game winning streak at home to get into the postseason picture, but they hit a roadblock during their 2-1 home loss to FC Dallas on Oct. 12.
"Against Dallas, we didn't come out sharp mentally and physically, and they punished us," Nyarko said. "If we go out there like we did against Dallas, it'll be a long night. But we know how we played against D.C. and we know we can get the wins. The guys are mentally ready to close the season on a bright note."
The Fire are fresh off a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over D.C. United last Saturday at RFK Stadium. Diego Chaves scored the winner and Sebastian Grazzini had the equalizer -- both goals coming in stoppage time. But Grazzini is a question mark heading into this weekend with a lingering hamstring injury.
Some reinforcements that were not in D.C. will be back this weekend. Midfielder Pavel Pardo (red card) and defenders Cory Gibbs (yellow card accumulation) and Dan Gargan (yellow card accumulation) return from their suspensions. Defender Josip Mikulic, who replaced Gibbs in the D.C. match, will be suspended for the season finale because of yellow card accumulation.
Columbus (13-12-8, 47 points) is coming off a 3-0 victory at the New England Revolution last Saturday. Team scoring leader Andres Mendoza posted a pair of goals to increase his season total to 13.
The Fire defeated the Crew, 1-0, in Columbus on June 12. Cristian Nazarit tallied a stoppage-time goal as Klopas earned his first win at the helm after taking over for former head coach Carlos de los Cobos. That victory also ended an 11-game winless streak (0-4-7).
Oduro, Gibbs earn team awards: Though the season has one final game remaining in the books, the Fire felt that it was clear-cut in naming forward Dominic Oduro the team MVP and Cory Gibbs the Defender of the Year on Friday. Oduro leads the Fire with 12 goals in 33 games. Both players will receive their awards before Saturday's match. The team said that Gibbs narrowly beat out goalkeeper Sean Johnson for the defensive honor. Both awards were voted on by local media and the team's technical staff. Defender Steven Kinney, who did not play on the pitch this season because of an Achilles injury in 2010 and had various setbacks during his recovery process, was named Fire Humanitarian of the Year.
Draft takes place on Jan. 12: Major League Soccer announced Friday that the 2012 MLS SuperDraft will be held on Jan. 12 at the Kansas City Convention Center in Kansas City, Mo. ESPN2 will broadcast the first round, starting at 11 a.m.
But the Fire (7-9-16, 37 points) will be dramatically shorthanded when they face Eastern Conference foe D.C. United on Saturday at RFK Stadium.
Defenders Dan Gargan and Cory Gibbs are suspended because of yellow card accumulation, and midfielder Pavel Pardo is out because of a straight red card from Wednesday's 2-1 home loss to FC Dallas.
"We have to finish strong," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "Every time we have an opportunity to step on the field and train or play, it's all about improving as a team. We don't believe in excuses."
"We need to regroup and go over there in D.C. and look for the win," Fire defender Gonzalo Segares said. "[The Dallas loss is] definitely a big blow for us. We've been pushing really hard these past couple of months during the late run and it got us pretty close to being in the position in which we could have been fighting for the playoffs. But with the result [Wednesday], it's just really tough to swallow. We've got two more games to play and like every other game we've got to go out there and get a win."
Segares felt that the heavy dose of cards from that match was the result of last-second frustration in trying to disrupt a superior Dallas side.
"A lot of them were when [Dallas] was on the counter and somehow we had to stop the play," Segares said. "At the beginning of the game, that's how they got many chances. Sometimes you've got to stop those breakaways. Because so many guys got cards, it's definitely going to hurt us -- Gargan, Cory and Pavel with the red card. But we have guys who can step into the starting lineup and help us in the last couple of games."
The Fire have had their share of defensive suspensions already this season, but they have some options to make due in D.C. Segares will remain at left back, Jalil Anibaba could shift to right back, and Klopas might turn to a center back pairing of Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta.
Pardo's absence in the midfield will be a crucial setback as he arguably has been the team's most valuable player during his short tenure. Fire midfielder Marco Pappa will return from international duty with Guatemala.
Several weeks ago it appeared that D.C. (9-11-11, 38 points) would work itself into the playoff picture, thanks mostly because of Dwayne De Rosario's heavy scoring dose. But United is now in the midst of a three-game losing streak, most recently posting a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday.
United does have three home matches left on the docket. But with a five-point deficit from the bottom of the wild card field, D.C.'s quest for a postseason has quickly faded.
The Fire played D.C. to a 1-1 draw on Aug. 18 at Toyota Park. Sebastian Grazzini had a 59th-minute goal for a 1-0 lead, but D.C.'s Josh Wolff found the equalizer in the 73rd minute.
Sebastian Grazzini's late goal for the Fire was all Chicago could muster as FC Dallas gained a two-goal lead and held on for a 2-1 victory on Wednesday in front of 10,362 at Toyota Park. Dallas' Jackson and Daniel Cruz netted goals as the team retained the Brimstone Cup, which has been in its possession since 2002.
The Fire (7-9-16, 37 points) still are mathematically in the playoff picture, but they would need to win out, a couple of teams would need to lose out and Chicago would have to make a jump in goal differential.
Dallas (14-11-7, 49 points) was in control for the entire match, creating its share of scoring chances, while minimizing the Fire's attack. Chicago did not register a shot on goal during the first half, while Dallas lingered around the goal for many stretches, especially in the first 45 minutes.
"We were flat from the beginning," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "We weren't sharp. We were just a step behind everything. Give credit to Dallas. They came out and made it difficult for us."
The Fire eventually registered three shots on goal, but their offensive impact was minimal. Dallas contained forward Dominic Oduro and the rest of the Fire by dropping back so they would not get burned by Oduro's quickness.
"It was really hard for me to get behind the defense," Oduro said. "I think they just dropped back the whole time, so we had to change tactics and play on the right. I was able to get a few balls on that side. But technically they did well by just sitting back."
"I think we were just too naive," Fire defender Gonzalo Segares said. "We've got to be smarter. I think they definitely knew what our strength was and that's our speed and getting behind defenses, and from the beginning they went back and dropped and made us play. That's when we tried to force balls and lost them in tough places. That's how they got so many chances in the beginning. We'd lose the ball easily and they'd counter with really fast guys, and it gave us a lot of trouble."
The Fire's lone offensive contribution came from Grazzini, who netted a goal in the 86th minute off of an Orr Barouch assist.
It took Dallas some time to get on the board, and Jackson finally provided the offense in the 41st minute with a shot aimed toward the right side of the frame past Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson for a 1-0 lead.
While Johnson should have done better on defending against Jackson's goal, he did come up with three saves in the first half, including a clutch stop in the 24th minute against Jackson. During that play, Jackson had a step on Fire defender Jalil Anibaba and looked like he had a sure goal, aiming to the left of the frame. But Johnson reached to his right and was able to corral the shot.
Dallas padded its lead in the 53rd minute with Cruz's volley for a 2-0 advantage. Ricardo Villar took the corner kick from the right side, and Dallas' Zach Loyd headed the ball to Cruz, who shot with his back turned to the goal.
The Fire will try to move forward in their final two matches, beginning at D.C. United on Saturday. But they will be without three of their starters. Defenders Dan Gargan and Cory Gibbs will be out because of yellow card accumulation. And midfielder Pavel Pardo was shown a straight red card on Wednesday in the 79th minute for harshly fouling Villar.
"It was a play where I was a little bit late," Pardo said. "I know it was a foul. But this is the referee's decision. There's no excuse. I got a red card and I apologize because of course when you are with 10 players it's difficult to play to try to win."
Analysis: After posting a four-game home winning streak and working their way back into the postseason picture a bit, the Fire played their worst match since falling to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps.
Whether or not they just did not fully recover from the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup loss to Seattle Sounders FC, Chicago was completely out-played by Dallas in every area on the pitch.
Klopas did not use the absence of Marco Pappa as an excuse. The Fire did not use their schedule as an excuse. Dallas was the team with far more energy and movement and better decision making than Chicago.
Two games remain, and while the Fire claim they will try to field the best team available, it really is time to start taking a look at the rest of their roster in gearing up for next year. Having three starters out for D.C. will assist that process to some degree.
The Fire won for the fifth time in their past six matches and were led by midfielder Marco Pappa's hat trick en route to a 3-0 victory against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium in front of 20,762 at Sandy, Utah.
Pappa had been in a significant scoring funk, having failed to find the back of the net since June 26 against the New York Red Bulls.
Now Chicago (7-8-15, 36 points) is within three points of those Red Bulls, who currently hold the final wild card position with 39 points.
"That was great to see," Fire defender Dan Gargan said of Pappa's performance. "He's a player that we need, and when he's sticking the ball into the back of the net, that's phenomenal for us because that's just another weapon that we have. It's been coming. He comes to training every day and puts in extra sessions. He's such a talented player."
Everything went right for the Fire in the first half, and especially in the first 15 minutes. Pappa tallied a ninth-minute goal with his right foot. Then in the 11th minute, Salt Lake captain and midfielder Kyle Beckerman leveled Chicago midfielder Daniel Paladini to the ground and was shown a straight red card.
Defensively, the back line did its job and kept Salt Lake (15-9-6, 51 points) off of the scoreboard as RSL clearly missed having the play of Beckerman in the midfield.
With Pappa zoned in, the Fire were in the driver's seat. In the 36th minute, Pavel Pardo set up Pappa by dribbling past RSL's Yordany Alvarez and passing the ball forward just past Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers. Pappa did the rest with a left-footed strike past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando for a 2-0 lead.
Pappa capped off the night with his third goal in the 75th minute, doing all of the work himself to get past Chris Schuler on the right sideline and then striking the ball inside the far left post for his eighth tally of the season.
The absence of Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, out with a hamstring injury, completely took a back seat. Chicago maintained possession for large portions of the game and did all of the little things right to garner just their second road victory.
"We are on a bit of a roll," Gargan said. "It certainly feels good. I think it's something that we certainly believe in, that we're capable of these results. We want to keep going in that direction."
Salt Lake had its chances, but throughout the first half RSL struggled to put anything on frame. The most significant opportunity came in the 28th minute when Alvaro Saborio got behind the Fire's defense and pushed the ball wide left. Soborio was all alone as Fire defender Josip Mikulic was not on the same page as Fire defender Cory Gibbs and Mikulic decided to push up for an offside call. Saborio was several yards onside.
The only uplifting moment for RSL's 20,000-plus crowd was seeing Salt Lake's Javier Morales make his first appearance since May 7, when he suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle.
Analysis: The Beckerman red unquestionably changed every aspect of the match. But the Fire deserve some props for enduring the moments when RSL was trying draw something in the infraction department.
Gargan's matchup against Fabian Espindola could have gotten out of hand, but Gargan played an intelligent and effective game after both players were shown yellows in the 16th. RSL fans were shouting for a 20th-minute foul in the box on Gibbs, but official Baldomero Toledo was not buying Will Johnson's effort to try and draw a penalty kick. When Chris Wingert fouled Pappa harshly on the sideline in the 33rd and probably deserved a yellow, there was no aftermath or retaliation.
"You don't have to be dirty to be a good player," Gargan said. "I certainly think that they have a couple of them that could have handled themselves better. We had to be smart, to not even up the score, because they certainly were looking to do it and do everything they could to get one of us tossed."
The cooler Fire heads prevailed on Wednesday. The big challenge of course is maintaining this confident and composed play on short rest in Houston this Saturday.
Grazzini, who injured his hamstring during the first half of Chicago's 3-2 win over the New England Revolution, is expected to miss Wednesday's match at Real Salt Lake.
The midseason acquisition had a goal and an assist before his departure. Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas told MLSSoccer.com this week that Grazzini would not play against Salt Lake, which is coming off its worst loss of the season, a 4-1 defeat at D.C. United. Grazzini is listed as questionable on the MLS Injury Report.
Klopas likely will return to Baggio Husidic in the midfield for the Fire (6-8-15, 33 points). Husidic replaced Grazzini during Sunday's win over the Revs, and it will be a tough task to match Grazzini's skill set and activity.
"Baggio came in and my message to him was he's got to get the ball and make those passes like Sebastian," Klopas said. "At first he was looking to get behind more and left a little bit of a gap."
Fire defender Cory Gibbs will return from his one-game suspension. For the first time since Chicago's Aug. 27 win over the Colorado Rapids, the Fire will have all of their available defensive options.
On offense, Chicago has tallied five goals and benefited from an own goal in its past two matches against Chivas USA and New England. And for the first time this season with the Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko pairing up front, each forward netted a goal against New England. Oduro's rolling right along with a team-high 11 goals, and for Nyarko it was his first of the season.
Everyone already is familiar with Nyarko's ability to set up players, as evidenced by his team-leading seven assists. But Klopas wants to see Nyarko become more proactive in attacking the goal.
"I've told him at times that he needs to be more selfish, especially now that he's playing on top," Klopas said. "When he gets opportunities as a forward, he's always looking to make that pass. But sometimes he needs to be selfish and finish plays off himself. I was happy for him. Whether he gets assists or getting a goal, that's great for his confidence."
"As a striker you've got to do that," Nyarko said. "But that's not my personality. That's not how I play. I look to play, I look to find people -- the easiest spot to get us a goal and to help the team win. Maybe sometimes I could be [more selfish], but I don't look at it from that standpoint. Especially like I missed a goal [Sunday] that I could have passed to Dom. But I think he was offside. If he wasn't, I would have passed it. That's my game. That's unselfish."
RSL's offense is lead by Alvaro Saborio, who has 10 goals and has scored in Salt Lake's past two matches.
Salt Lake (15-8-6, 51 points) has stamped a playoff spot, and it will take a dominating run and a Los Angeles Galaxy collapse for RSL to think about earning the Supporters' Shield. The Galaxy has a 10-point lead on Salt Lake and a seven-point lead on Seattle Sounders FC.
The pressure is all on the Fire this Wednesday. Chicago sits six points behind the New York Red Bulls who own the final wild card spot at the moment.
The Fire and Salt Lake played to a scoreless draw on June 22 at Toyota Park.
The Fire (5-8-15, 30 points) host the New England Revolution (5-12-12, 27 points) this Sunday at Toyota Park, facing the only team remaining on Chicago's schedule that is in worse shape than the Fire.
"Now that we've put kind of a little run together, we've got to keep it going," Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. "We can't afford to take strides forward and then take steps back. We've got to keep pushing, pushing, pushing, until we get to where we want to be. And that's ultimately the playoffs."
Before Saturday night's match between the expansion Portland Timbers and the host New York Red Bulls, Portland was holding on to the final wild card berth with 37 points -- one point ahead of New York. Also heading into Saturday, the Fire were seven points behind the Timbers.
The Fire have won three of their past four matches, and Chicago's offense has been energized by the play of forward Dominic Oduro.
Oduro has been on a tear over the past month and a half, most recently notching a shorthanded, game-winning tally against Chivas USA last Saturday to up his season total to 10 goals. He became the first Fire player since Damani Ralph in 2004 to reach double digits. Oduro is now in the running for the Golden Boot, thanks to five goals over Chicago's past seven regular-season matches.
Defensively, Fire center back Cory Gibbs was issued a red card during Chicago's win over Chivas and will miss Sunday's match. Chicago right back Dan Gargan will be back in the fold after missing the Chivas match (yellow card accumulation).
Chicago has allowed four goals in its past two games, and the Fire will have to play again without a key defensive component in Gibbs. The Fire's back line has had to reconfigure itself every week, dating back to left back Gonzalo Segares missing the Sept. 10 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes (yellow card accumulation).
"When you change formations it's always difficult getting guys on the same page," Johnson said of the recent defensive adjustments. "No matter what team's on the field, I think everyone is capable of getting the job done."
Chicago's three victories over the past month have all come at home. The Fire have improved their Toyota Park record to 4-2-8.
The Revs are on the edge of elimination from postseason contention, and a loss to the Fire would surely represent the end to their season.
New England was dealt a significant hit up front when Danish striker Rajko Lekic sprained his left ankle during the team's 3-0 loss to the Timbers last Friday. Lekic, who is second on the team with six goals, is expected to miss most of the Revs' remaining games -- if not all of them.
Lekic helped New England salvage a 1-1 draw when the Revolution faced the Fire on June 18 at Gillette Stadium. Chicago had a 1-0 halftime lead thanks to an Oduro goal in the 32nd minute. But shortly after the break in the 48th, Lekic tallied the equalizer to come away with a point at home.
Lekic's presence will be sorely missed as midfielder Shalrie Joseph represents the only big offensive threat to date. Joseph has provided 25 percent of the Revs' scoring this season with a team-leading eight goals.
The odds for the playoffs are slim as only six games remain and three other teams are ahead of the Fire in the postseason picture.
But does Chicago have one final gasp at making a realistic run for a playoff spot? Is there enough time to eliminate the current six-point gap that separates Chicago from a wild card berth?
"We've progressively been getting better, and the results have been getting better," Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson said following Chicago's shorthanded 3-2 victory against Chivas USA on Saturday. "But now is the time to turn it up and get three points every time out. We have six games and we need all six. That's our attitude."
The Fire host the New England Revolution this Sunday, and the Revs basically represent the only remaining team on Chicago's schedule that is outside of the playoff picture. D.C. United is on the outside, as well, but United also has played in three fewer matches than the Fire and is ahead in the standings.
Everybody else on the Fire's late-September through October schedule would advance to the playoffs if the season ended today.
Chicago (5-8-15, 30 points) cannot afford anything less than a win against the Revs, which have the second-lowest points total in the league (5-12-12, 27 points).
Can Pappa find his form?: The Fire midfield's midseason facelift has been a positive with the additions of Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo. But a continual setback has permeated with the play of Marco Pappa.
Pappa entered this season with the expectations that he would be a primal force on the offensive end. But Pappa is in the midst of a massive drought. He has not scored a goal since June 26 against the New York Red Bulls.
Pappa wore his frustration during the Chivas match, visibly upset that he did not receive the ball at certain moments.
"Sometimes he makes a lot of hard runs, and when he doesn't get the ball, it's normal," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "He wants to do well for the team and for himself. There were a couple of times I think we could have played the ball early, and he was in a better position.
"Marco's played a lot of games, with [Guatemala] national team duty and traveling. You can see it's catching up on him a little bit."
Defensive merry-go-round still spins: For a third straight week, the Fire's back line will be without one of its starting defenders this Sunday. Cory Gibbs was issued a red card for his challenge against Chivas' Michael Lahoud. From a contact standpoint, replays showed that Gibbs probably deserved a yellow, but the nature of the play was an unintelligent move on Gibbs' part.
Gonzalo Segares and Dan Gargan missed games for yellow card accumulation, and their recent yellows should have been avoided. Both players were carded for dissent, and if you are going to cross a line, it should at least be done in the run of play. Segares' infraction forced him to miss the team's road loss against the San Jose Earthquakes, and Gargan was out for the Chivas match.
The Fire found some continuity with the back line of Segares, Jalil Anibaba, Gibbs and Gargan, and in no way, shape or form did the Fire want to tinker with this combination. But yet again, Chicago's poor decisions on the defensive side are forcing Klopas to make some unnecessary adjustments.
Johnson playing big: Johnson's early-season struggles are a distant memory. The second-year goalkeeper has had to come up with some clutch saves in all types of fashions -- run of play, set pieces and penalty kicks.
"We know he has all the tools to be an unbelievable goalkeeper, but with his experience he's making game saving saves to keep us in games," Fire captain Logan Pause said.
"He's playing with a lot of confidence, which you need in that position," Klopas said. "He's got a lot of upside. He's getting better. I can't tell you where that upside is going to stop with him."
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire could not have drawn up a better start. The only question was whether Chicago could finish, especially playing down a man.
In an up-and-down match that included a two-goal lead followed by a level second half, the Fire's Dominic Oduro came to the rescue with a shorthanded, game-winning goal in the 85th minute to lead Chicago to a 3-2 victory over Chivas USA on Saturday in front of 15,246 at Toyota Park.
"These are the kinds of games that are very exciting, for sure," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "Memorable ones, things you can build on. You kind of feel that in the past, maybe the team would not have found a way to pull this one out."
The Fire had to play much of the match down a man when defender Cory Gibbs was issued a red card for fouling Chivas' Michael Lahoud in the 37th minute.
Chicago blew a two-goal lead for the first time this season. But the Fire found an opportunity to garner their third win in four league games when Oduro finished a strong buildup from Diego Chaves and Patrick Nyarko, who had the set-up pass from the left.
"I looked at first and saw that Dom was wide open," Nyarko said. "I had the other option of shooting, which the goal was a clear chance enough. But I made the easy play. Dom was wide open and he was onside. I laid the ball and he made it for an easy finish."
As for Gibbs' questionable red card, replays showed that the amount of contact looked like it was far less than Lahoud's body language showed during the live run of play.
"It was a hard tackle," Gibbs said. "Would I have given a red? No. Definitely, probably a yellow. But that's the referee's discretion. It was just unprofessional of me at the time, and I hold responsibility for it. The call was made and it was a red. At the end of the day, I hold responsibility for the situation we were put into."
"I know he went hard -- maybe the studs were up," Klopas said. "But I didn't see something different than the one that Patrick was down [in the seventh minute against Chivas defender Michael] Lahoud, because the studs were up on that one, too. I thought it was a little bit harsh, the red, for sure. I thought it was maybe a yellow. But I'd have to see it. I haven't seen the play."
Gibbs will now have to serve a one-game suspension when the Fire host the New England Revolution on Sept. 25 at Toyota Park. On Saturday, Gibbs' provided a strong start for Chicago, heading home a Sebastian Grazzini corner kick in just the second minute for an early 1-0 lead against Chivas.
The Fire then benefited from a Juan Pablo Angel own goal in the 26th to gain a 2-0 lead.
However, Chivas worked its way back into the match with Angel's 61st-minute tally and Nick LaBrocca's 63rd-minute score to tie the score at 2-2.
"I felt we gave up those two goals really easily," Nyarko said. "It was up to us to show our will there, to gut it out. We were just waiting, sitting, waiting for our opportunity to pounce. Luckily we got it toward the end of the game."
The Oduro goal gives him 10 on the season, and he is the first double-digit scorer for the Fire since Damani Ralph in 2004. The goal also gave Gibbs something to cheer about away from the pitch.
"Seeing Oduro score that goal, it almost pulled me out of the grave," Gibbs said. "I was really down on myself."
Analysis: Anything less than a win would have further dampened the Fire's faint playoff chances, but Chicago rose to the occasion on Saturday.
Though the defense did surrender a couple of goals, the back line and, of course, goalkeeper Sean Johnson have to be commended on this one. The back line had to shuffle things around with Gibbs' red, and Johnson continues to impress with some huge saves. He had Angel's number on more than a few occasions en route to six saves on the night.
The loss of Gibbs for New England will be a bit of a setback, but Chicago seems to have things covered when right back Dan Gargan returns from his one-game suspension.
Chivas' Jorge Mora scored a 61st-minute free kick goal and Guadalajara defeated the Chicago Fire, 1-0, in front of 18,224 at Wednesday's international friendly. It marked Chicago's second international loss this year, having fallen to Manchester United, 3-1, on July 23 at Soldier Field.
"It's one of those things where you don't like to lose," Fire defender Cory Gibbs said. "It's just unfortunate losing on a free kick. We just have to keep pressuring. For morale, it's not good."
Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas utilized this simply as another preparation tool toward Saturday's league match against Chivas USA. And for the first 45 minutes, the bulk of the Fire's first team held a significant possession advantage against Chivas' first team.
Chicago held a 4-1 shots on goal advantage in the first half, with an occasional chance at the goal.
Of Chicago's early scoring chances, Fire forward Diego Chaves had a fifth-minute attempt that was batted over the frame by Chivas goalkeeper Luis Ernesto Michel. In the 37th, Michel stopped a Marco Pappa attempt at the near right post.
The Fire brought in nine subs to open the second half, and about 15 minutes in Guadalajara gained the upper hand. Mora's free kick from about 25 yards out found the right side of the frame past Fire second-half goalkeeper Jon Conway.
In the grand scheme of things, the Fire wanted to get some reps for the younger bench players such as midfielder Victor Pineda and defender Pari Pantazopoulos, and forward Kellen Gulley who will not be involved in league play until the 2012 season. All three made their Toyota Park debuts.
"For the young guys, it's great for them, for their experience, for their development and for their growth," Klopas said. "It's a good opportunity for all the players to get in."
Heading into Saturday's home match against Chivas USA, the Fire will be without right back Dan Gargan (yellow card accumulation). Against Guadalajara, Chicago moved Jalil Anibaba to the right side and started Josip Mikulic at center back alongside Gibbs.
Though Mikulic had an incredibly shaky opening -- including one moment where he simply tripped on the grass -- he improved during the run of play and played the entire match. Mikulic also had one of Chicago's closest scoring chances in the second half, hitting the wrong side of the right netting in the 68th minute.
But a 2-0-2 record since that match and eight points later, and all of a sudden the Fire are knocking on the postseason door, though they still have some work to do.
The Fire are shooting for their third straight victory when they face the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium. Chicago (4-7-15, 27 points) is slightly ahead of San Jose (5-10-11, 26 points) as both teams attempt to close the gap for the final position in the wild card race. Heading into the weekend, that final spot is held by the New York Red Bulls (32 points).
"It's a big game coming up in San Jose this weekend, because they're a team also that's desperate for points, and we're playing away," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "So our mentality, our approach, our focus, concentration and intensity for 90 minutes has to be there. It's going to be a difficult match, but we're in it."
San Jose is in a position that Chicago had felt for much of the season, posting a long winless streak that has now reached 13 games (0-7-6). Before the Quakes' current skid, which started on mid-June, San Jose had pieced together a 4-0-1 stretch and had a modest 5-4-4 record.
"We know that they are also out of the playoffs looking in, trying to get wins," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "They've had a little bit of a winless streak for quite some time, so they're going to be flying. We need to match that intensity, and hopefully we'll create some chances and score some goals."
The tide has turned a bit for Chicago. Dominic Oduro is finding the goal on a regular basis with his team-leading nine tallies. The defense has posted back-to-back shutouts. And the breaks and bounces have started to shift toward the Fire's direction, such as Toronto FC hitting the frame on two shots and Chicago earning the 2-0 win on Aug. 21.
"At some point our season had to open up," Fire defender Cory Gibbs said. "We've had a lot of bad luck, of things just not going our way early in the season. A lot of those ties, especially. At some point you get a run going."
Chicago cannot slow down with only eight matches remaining and five points separating the team from the current postseason cut.
The last time the Fire posted three straight league wins was from May 16-28, 2009. The May 28 win over Chivas USA capped off a 5-0-6 start to the season before Chicago lost the next three and could not post back-to-back wins the rest of the way. The Fire would fall to eventual MLS champion Real Salt Lake in the Eastern Conference title match.
But as Chicago stumbled in the win column in the latter half of its 2009 campaign, this year's Fire have found some life at the most critical juncture of the season.
The Fire do have to overcome a defensive hurdle for Saturday. Left back Gonzalo Segares is suspended because of yellow card accumulation, so some things will need to be shuffled around on the back line. Based on Klopas' remarks this week, the top two options appear to be shifting right back Dan Gargan or center back Gibbs to that left side.
The team reiterated this adjustment should not have any bearing on the way the Fire approach Saturday.
"What our team is about and how we've gone about our business, that doesn't change," Pause said. "Our style of play is not going to change. I think Gonzalo will be missed, but that's why we have guys knocking on the door to come in and step up."
San Jose coincidentally is in a similar position with midfielder Bobby Convey out of the lineup because of yellow card accumulation.
Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski leads his side with nine goals. San Jose and former Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch has played in every minute this season, posting 90 saves, six shutouts and a 1.35 goals allowed average in 26 matches. Busch's counterpart, Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, has six shutouts in 20 matches, saving 50 shots and posting a 1.25 goals allowed average.
But the Fire (4-7-15, 27 points) have no getting around a lineup adjustment this Saturday when they head out west to face the San Jose Earthquakes (5-10-11, 26 points). Left back Gonzalo Segares is not available because of yellow card accumulation.
That puts Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas on the spot as Chicago shoots for a third straight victory to continue its climb into the playoff picture. Will Klopas simply insert a bench player at Segares' left back position, or will he shift multiple players around within the defense and midfield?
"The whole thing is, who do you put there so you don't disrupt too many things?" Klopas said after Wednesday's training. "Because there's a good line of communication now with the group in the middle and stuff like that. It's just making a decision. Sometimes, that's why you sit around all night and you don't go to sleep, and you try to figure out -- is it this guy, is it this guy, is it this guy? But I have the confidence in any of the guys we put out there."
Purely based on the options that Klopas rattled off on Wednesday, it seems like he will not bring up a bench player and move him directly into Segares' spot. The team's left back options are limited, even more so now that midfielder Mike Banner -- who has some experience at left back -- suffered a right ankle sprain during the Fire's reserve game on Tuesday.
In terms of doing the least amount of lineup juggling, shifting center back Cory Gibbs to that slot would appear to be a logical move because of the team's depth at center back with rookie starter Jalil Anibaba, Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta. Right back Dan Gargan also appears to be a frontrunner for Segares' spot.
"We have some different options," Klopas said. "You can put Gargan on the left side, you can put Cory, who's played with the national team on the left side when he grew up, as a left back for one game. There's no issue. I think he's more than ready. But you can put Logan [Pause] at right back and put Gargan on that side, you can put Jalil [Anibaba] at right back. So we do have options. We've been working with different scenarios throughout the week, and we've just got to see what's the best for us for that game."
The Fire have not had a match in more than a week, most recently coming off a 2-1 win over Richmond in the Open Cup semifinals on Aug. 30. Before that, Chicago posted back-to-back MLS victories against Toronto FC and the Colorado Rapids.
In the Rapids match, midfielder Pavel Pardo injured his calf and was subbed out at halftime. Pardo said Wednesday that he is 100 percent for Saturday's match against San Jose.
"I didn't play in the [Open] Cup against Richmond, but that week I rested," Pardo said. "I feel good to get in the game."