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Fire Tue Sep 25 2012

Forwards Lead Fire to Brink of First Place

For most of the season, it looked like the Fire would be trying to hold onto a playoff spot at this late point in the season. Instead, after winning 7 out of their last 8 games, they have a shot of winning the Eastern Conference and could qualify for the playoffs as early as this weekend.

It all comes down to a showdown away to Eastern Conference leaders Kansas City FC on Friday night. At the moment the Fire are 2 points away from Kansas City and they've played one game less than them. That means a win or a draw will put the destiny of the Eastern Conference title in the Fire's hands. Why have they been playing so well lately? In a word, forwards.

The Fire defense has been solid all year with Sean Johnson making phenomenal saves when needed, Arne Friedrich being the imperious veteran we hoped he'd be, and Austin Berry emerging as a genuine Rookie of the Year contender. The Fire aren't a ball possession team. They've been withstanding sieges the majority of the season. If you look at the possession stats, they still are, but now they're getting a lot more help on the break from their forwards.

At the beginning of the year, the depth chart up top looked something like this: Oduro, Grazzini, Puppo, Barrouch. Now, after midseason moves, the depth chart is arguably Chris Rolfe, Sherjill Johnson, Guillerme Franco, Dominic Oduro. It says something for your improvement in a position when the guy at the top becomes the guy at the bottom.

You have to feel a bit for Oduro, who is playing a diminished role after carrying the attack on his shoulders last season. But the instant MacDonald and Rolfe took the field together they instantly clicked. I've always felt the only thing holding Rolfe back from a regular US National Team spot is the fact that he's best suited to a position that has gone out of fashion - the second striker.

Over the past half-decade, most teams have been favoring a single striker setup, with the support striker coming from wingers slashing in or midfielders making late runs into the box. Rolfe has found himself either shunted to the wings or played deeper in midfield than he's comfortable. Rolfe is at his best when plays just off a striking partner, giving him room to use his skill and mobility to break into the space left in his partner's wake. With the arrival Sherjill MacDonald, Rolfe has the perfect partner.

MacDonald's not exactly a big-man so his presence doesn't encourage a lot of long-balls and racing around for flick-ons. But he's extremely strong at posting up on a defender and getting the ball played into his feet. He's also got great skill when he gets the ball, and can combine with Rolfe very quickly. Rolfe's first goal in the 2-1 win over Columbus this weekend showed the tandem working to perfection:

It's also worth mentioning that the Fire has shown more depth in the center of midfield than I originally thought they had. First, Daniel Paladini deputized admirably for the injured Logan...Pause. Now, with Pause back but Pavel Pardo injured, Brazilian midfielder Alex as stepped into the midfield and shown he can be responsible defensively as well as good at joining the attack.

Of course, most of the teams the Fire have beaten during this run have been bottom of the table teams like Montreal, Toronto, Columbus, and New England. They are going to see a noticeable step up in competition against Kansas City this Friday. But this team has been competitive with just about everyone this season, they really work hard for each other, and now they're starting to find goals. I have a feeling they're up for it.

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