BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Will the real Chicago Fire please stand up?
A topsy-turvy five-day stretch last week brought out the Fire's best efforts (1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union) and easily the team's worst performances (4-2 loss to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps) of the season. Which version shows up this Saturday remains to be seen as Chicago faces the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
"It's amazing, because you go from playing the [second-place team in the East] and dominating that game and playing really well, and then going on the road where for me it was a very poor performance," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "Not the fact that we lost. I just felt the discipline and the stuff that we worked on, we gave up opportunities too, too easy. When you do that and give up four goals, it's difficult to win any game."
The Fire (2-7-13, 19 points) currently own an eight-game winless streak (0-3-5), but they are catching the Red Bulls (6-6-12, 30 points) in the midst of their own struggles. New York is winless in its past five matches (0-3-2) and enters the weekend tied for third in the Eastern Conference with Sporting Kansas City.
The Fire have touted a 4-5-1 formation with Dominic Oduro as the lone man up top in their past couple of matches. Klopas was not ready to say whether the team would stick with that formation or make some tweaks heading into the Red Bulls match.
"When we played Portland and Philly, I felt that both center backs were not really quick," Klopas said. "... When [midfielder Sebastian] Grazzini gets the ball, he needs options and the mobility. We have a guy now that when you do that, he's able to find them. You can see the [first] goal that we scored in Vancouver, it was a fantastic play -- a through ball, a great run by Dominic. This game might be a little bit different."
"I think we've come to believe in the 4-5-1," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "The last game wasn't good keeping possession, but we've shown in the past that we can do that. I don't know what Frank is thinking at this point, but I think we stick to that and try not to give stuff away like we did in the first half in the last game."
With only one match to worry about this week, Klopas is hopeful that Grazzini will be able to provide some quality minutes. Grazzini was taken out in the 66th and 56th minutes against Philadelphia and Vancouver, respectively.
Fire forward Diego Chaves (knee) should be an available option as he has been training this week. Defender Cory Gibbs (groin strain) was limited to light jogging during the midweek and the Fire confirmed that he is out for Saturday against New York. That means some two-player combination of Josip Mikulic, Yamith Cuesta and Jalil Anibaba will be team up at center back. Against Vancouver, Mikulic and Cuesta had the start, and Cuesta particularly had some costly mistakes in his first game back from a one-match suspension.
The Fire have faced the Red Bulls on more occasions than any other MLS team this year. Chicago played to a 1-1 draw on June 26 in regular-season play, aided by a Marco Pappa equalizer that got past goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul. The Fire opened the 2011 preseason with a 1-1 draw against the Red Bulls on Feb. 23. And on July 12, the Fire earned an easy 4-0 win over New York in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play as the Red Bulls brought a mostly reserve squad to Toyota Park.
New York is coming off a 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake last Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Eastern Conference continues to lag far behind the West performance-wise this year. The first-place Columbus Crew's 34 points entering the weekend would put them in sixth place in the West, giving struggling teams such as Chicago a flicker of hope.
"The Eastern Conference has been kind to us," Nyarko said. "Luckily we're still in it. We just need a little bit of a run and we're right back in the mix."