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Fizzling Fire needs a spark
by Ridge Mahoney, May 24th, 2007 7AM

TAGS:  mexico, mls


TV: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

If ever a team looked in desperate need of a Designated Player, it's the Chicago Fire.

Stuck in a three-game losing streak, Chicago takes on Red Bull New York (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at the Meadowlands Thursday without Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who is playing for Club America in the Mexican League finals and Copa Liberatadores. He won't be available until mid-June at the earliest.

The Fire is one of only two MLS teams not to be shut out so far this season (Kansas City is the other), but with eight goals in seven matches it can't be described as potent. Top scorer Chris Rolfe (four goals, three assists) sat out last week's 2-1 loss to Dallas with a sprained ankle and is questionable.

New York's second DP, Juan Pablo Angel, picked up MLS Player of the Week honors after scoring a goal in a 4-0 rout of Columbus. The other DP, Claudio Reyna, sat out the Crew game with a groin strain yet may be available for this match.

RBNY is not at full strength, should Reyna return. Keeper Ronald Waterreus and right back Hunter Freeman are out with ankle sprains. Freeman's replacement, midfielder Dema Kovalenko, left his corner exposed several times last weekend yet was able to recover with timely slide tackles.

If Chicago can pierce both flanks consistently so the Red Bull back line is constantly shifting, it can create chances. Yet Rolfe's absence greatly saps its attack, as Thiago, Ivan Guerrero and Justin Mapp have a combined two assists.

Calen Carr, who scored three goals last year as a rookie, got his first start of the season last weekend and netted his first goal in a 2-1 loss to Dallas as three Fire shots hit the woodwork. His pace blows past people and neither of Red Bull's central defenders, Jeff Parke and Carlos Mendes, are especially speedy. But no team can match RBNY's defensive record of just four goals conceded and four shutouts.

Aside from a tepid display while losing to Colorado, 1-0, on May 13, New York's attack is among the most consistent in MLS. Forwards Angel and Clint Mathis (four goals) have already struck up a nice partnership. Seth Stammler supplements his solid work as the holding midfielder by linking defense and attack in Reyna's absence.

Opponents have struggled to stop the lightning-like dribbles and runs of rookie Dane Richards and the smart touches and bending crosses of veteran Dave van den Bergh. The RBNY wide men have combined for two goals and five assists, and left back Todd Dunivant's potent left foot and long throw-ins add additional weapons.

Fire coach Dave Sarachan has experimented in recent weeks. Frenchman Pascal Bedrossian got his first start last week, and defender Dasan Robinson took a spot in midfield with Diego Gutierrez suspended. Robinson hit the crossbar with an overhead kick.

This is the first of three meetings between the teams this season. They play twice two weeks apart in September, by which time the arrival of Blanco - and perhaps other changes - will have altered Chicago's fortunes.

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