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Fire Tue Jun 21 2011

Road Results Have Fire Moving in Right Direction

Thumbnail image for fire crest.jpgSince last we checked, the Chicago Fire have been moving in the right direction with a pair of road results, earning a 1-0 rare win at Columbus on June 12 and a 1-1 draw at New England on Saturday.

Good momentum as they return home to Bridgeview this week, welcoming Real Salt Lake on Wednesday and the New York Red Bulls on Sunday.

The win in Columbus was Chicago's first since March 26, ending a club-record winless streak that had stretched to 11 games. It was the first win since technical director Frank Klopas took the coaching reins three weeks ago, and especially impressive considering how well Columbus is playing this year.

They did it with a dramatic goal in stoppage time and another strong defensive performance, extending their shutout streak under Klopas to three games, following two previous scoreless draws.

Columbus Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium built for an MLS team, is a challenging place to play for any opponent, no matter how the home team is playing. Like Seattle and Portland, Columbus has a vibrant soccer community that supports its club well, and loudly.

Moreover, the Crew (5-4-6) are indeed playing well and looking like strong playoff contenders, currently sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference, only two points behind first-place New York. They had not lost a home game this season.

All of which is to say Chicago's defensive performance was shockingly good. The Fire (2-4-9) had shut out their previous two opponents and kept that streak alive, but more impressively, Columbus failed to get a single decent shot on goal the entire match. This is a top team in the conference, and to stifle their attack so completely speaks volumes about the level of preparation and defensive focus Klopas insists on.

As far as offense goes, this game might turn out to be a minor coming-out party for Fire forward Orr Barouch. The striker came off the bench and single-handedly created the play that led to the goal a few seconds into stoppage time, dribbling inside the 6-yard box before sending a crossing pass that goalkeeper William Hesmer deflected but couldn't corral. Cristian Nazarit was right there to finish it easily.

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Barouch's performance could be notable down the line because he entered the game to replace Gaston Puerari in the 67th minute. A few days later, Puerari was sold to Club Atlas in Mexico, with no immediate replacement signed or apparently in mind.

The move gives Barouch the chance to start the game up top now, at least until the Fire decide who to spend their Puerari money on, and with the chances he's been creating as a substitute, Barouch seems like a decent bet to become an integral part of the team moving forward. But he's also only 19, so let's be patient if he's not an immediate standout.

Against the Revolution (3-7-6) on Saturday, the Fire finally had their first big mistake on defense, and were punished for it by letting slip another road win. Leading 1-0 in the opening minutes of the second half, Chicago misplayed the offsides trap, with one defender slow to step up, and Rajko Lekic went in alone to receive the ball and beat goalkeeper Sean Johnson one-on-one.

Despite later chances -- including a Barouch header that was cleared off the line -- Chicago wound up with another draw, its ninth in 15 games this season.

But overall, while the Fire need to start earning points to have any hope of climbing into the expanded, 10-team MLS playoffs, it's clear Klopas has this team playing better, particularly on the defensive end.

Chicago is 1-0-3 in his stewardship, having allowed two goals, and while four games is hardly a large sample size, a shutout win in Columbus bodes well moving forward into the summer.

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