Fire men eye top of ladder

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:21 AM ET

After a disappointing season that doesn't turn out the way the brass wants it to, an MLS team dismisses its coach. It brings in a new boss who has a reputation for being very demanding and more than a little bit surly.

The new coach makes a series of surprising changes. He revamps the formation. Changes the team's philosophy. Sends a veteran player packing.

But this article isn't about Toronto FC. It's about the Chicago Fire.

The parallels between Preki, TFC's new coach, and Carlos de los Cobos, the fiery new boss of the Fire, are remarkable. The two will square off Saturday at BMO Field.

"The big adjustment has been that we are expected to be perfect," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "He demands us to be perfect. That's kind of hard."

Expecting perfection? Sound familiar, TFC fans?

After yet another campaign in which the Fire finished near the top of the Eastern Conference standings and couldn't make it to MLS Cup -- the Fire is the MLS version of the San Jose Sharks --de los Cobos, the Mexican coach who most recently steered the El Salvadoran national team, was brought in.

He axed veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch less than a week before the start of the season, a move that shocked pundits throughout MLS. And he has radically changed the way the Fire plays, moving to a more dynamic offensive setup. Under previous coach Denis Hamlett, the Fire relied on a stone-clad defence and to get goals by committee. That tactic failed the team in the playoffs.

The new boss demands the midfielders to hold the ball.

"The coach stresses better offence," Nyarko said. "He wants us to control the tempo of the game. He wants to stack the midfield, he wants us to get more control of the ball. Getting more control of the ball leads to more chances."

New charges were brought in, most notably striker Collins John, who is partnered up front with his former Fulham teammate, Brian McBride. And Nyarko has been moved from the bench to the starting lineup, asked to use his blazing speed to run at defenders and set up John and McBride for goal-scoring chances. Nyarko has set up four of the goals the Fire has scored this season.

John, though, is questionable for Saturday's match because of a hamstring problem.

Nyarko loves to work outside, where TFC's defence is at its weakest; so watch for him to attack TFC right back Maksim Usanov, forcing Usanov to take early fouls to compensate for the difference in athleticism.

"In the past, we had some of the best players in MLS in the midfield, who were very good at what they did, so there was limited chances for me to show what I could do," Nyarko said.

But, with Chris Rolfe leaving Chicago to play in Europe, and Designated Player Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the MVP of the 2008 All-Star Game held at BMO Field, returning to Mexico, chances opened up for Nyarko. And he has made the most of them.

Still, despite the positive changes brought by the new boss, Chicago is just 2-2-2 in its first six. The players are still adapting to the new system and the no-excuses attitude of the boss (sound familiar, TFC fans?).

But the big difference between Chicago and TFC is that Preki wants the Reds to go from being a non-playoff team to being competitive. De los Cobos wants the Fire to go from contender to champion.

Despite the fact that the Fire has Wilman Conde -- who arguably has been the best central defender in MLS so far this season -- the team as a whole has made some serious defensive mistakes which has cost it some victories.

"All of our losses have come because of losses in concentration," said Nyarko. "We give up a goal on a set piece or on a cross. It's doing those little things. It's not like the other team is stringing together a series of passes and then scoring on us."


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