Cuauhtemoc Blanco has quietly helped move the Chicago Fire within three points of a playoff spot.
The Mexican superstar looks to lead surging Chicago into a tie for that postseason berth Wednesday night when it visits the slumping Kansas City Wizards in the first game of a home-and-home series.
Blanco joined the Fire (6-8-5) as a designated player - the mechanism unofficially known as the "Beckham rule" - from Mexican side Club America in July. Upon arriving in Chicago, he scored in his team debut July 22, a 1-all draw with Celtic F.C., the reigning Scottish league champion.
Since making his debut, Blanco has helped Chicago go 2-0-1, scoring a goal with two assists. The run has put the Fire three points back of Columbus for the eighth and final playoff position.
Blanco, who has 34 goals in 97 games for the Mexican national team, helped Chicago gain ground on the Crew by scoring his first goal Saturday and assisting on Paulo Wanchope's first MLS score in a 2-0 victory at Real Salt Lake.
"I think the idea was that, knowing that Salt Lake played a diamond figure in the middle, the idea was to have Cuauhtemoc play behind the anchor man," Fire coach Juan Carlos Osorio said. "I think he did very well there, just receiving the ball, playing through-balls and getting us going in the offensive third. I'm very pleased with Cuauhtemoc."
Now, Blanco looks to help Chicago match its season-opening 3-0-1 streak that included a 2-1 win over Kansas City (8-7-5) on April 21.
That stretch was followed by a 1-8-2 tailspin leading up to Blanco's debut in a 3-0 victory at Toronto on July 29. After that win, he received a lot of attention in a scoreless draw with Columbus on Aug. 4 as he was fouled a league-record 12 times.
With Blanco keying the Fire on the offensive end of the field, goalkeeper Matt Pickens has been securing the defensive end with three consecutive shutouts. He has seven on the season, two shy of the team mark set by Zach Thornton in 2001.
"It's not just me, it's a reflection on the whole team," Pickens said after making five saves against Salt Lake. "Starting from the forwards, all the way to the back three, I had a lot of help. That's all I've got to say, they're there for me all the time."
Pickens, who's emerging as one of the top netminders in MLS, has a career-best 1.33 goals-against average in 18 starts. He made two stops in the last meeting with the Wizards, allowing only a penalty-kick goal to Carlos Marinelli in the final minute of play.
This time Marinelli, Kansas City's Argentine playmaker, is suspended for an accumulation of yellow cards after being issued one Sunday in the last minute of a 1-0 loss to New England. The defeat opened a difficult stretch of five games in 14 days for the Wizards.
"When you have difficult scheduling you can't use that as an excuse," coach Curt Onalfo said. "You have to find a way to win. We just weren't sharp tonight, and we are going to get it right on Wednesday."
The Wizards, who visit Chicago on Saturday, will try to withstand Marinelli's absence and avoid their first three-game slide since a seven-game losing streak from June 24-July 22, 2006.