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By TOM CASTRO
(AP) -- Despite winning six of their last seven games, the Chicago Fire have made little progress toward taking over the Eastern Conference lead. They'll try to continue what has been a difficult push for first place when they host the Columbus Crew on Saturday night.
Although it's gained 18 points in its last seven contests, Chicago (15-8-5) has managed to make up only one point in that span on East-leading Sporting Kansas City, 5-0-2 in its previous seven. The Fire - with one game in hand - have won three in a row but trail Sporting KC, which hosts Montreal on Saturday, by four points.
The Impact were the Fire's latest victim, as Chicago won 3-1 at home last Saturday. Midseason acquisitions Alex, Sherjill MacDonald and Alvaro Fernandez found the back of the net for the second-place Fire, who are one point up on New York.
"The main goal is to make the playoffs, but if the top spot is in sight we want it," forward Patrick Nyarko said. "We want to host a conference final game, we want to host an MLS championship game here. It's a home-field advantage and we've thrived on it this year so we feel like when we attain that, we have a better shot at getting the championship."
Chicago has won nine of 10 at home and is 10-2-2 there.
"I think we're starting to really hit our stride, and it's something that's been an ongoing process," midfielder Logan Pause said. "It's not like a light switch that we've flicked on, we've been working incredibly hard throughout the season to be where we are. ... we're really starting to get some confidence as a group and starting to play some really good soccer."
While Chicago is surging, Columbus (13-10-6) ended a two-game skid with a crucial 1-0 win over Chivas USA on Wednesday. Justin Meram scored in the 89th minute and Andy Gruenebaum made five saves for the Crew, who are one point behind Houston for the fifth and final playoff spot in the East.
"(Wednesday's win) was important, but the most important is always the next (game). That's it," right back Sebastian Miranda told the team's official website. "We have to think about what we did good or bad, and try to play the same way or better on Saturday."
They would certainly like to play better that they did in the teams' last meeting, a 2-1 Fire home win June 23. Goals by Marco Pappa and Dominic Oduro gave Chicago a 2-0 lead through 26 minutes.
"We started off slow when we played (in Chicago) last time," midfielder Eddie Gaven said. " ... (The Fire) scored two goals early on us. That's a tough hole to try and come out of, on the road especially. I think that's going to be our main focus: To not come out flat, come out strong. If we do that, we'll be fine."
Gaven helped Columbus do so in the first matchup of the season May 26, scoring the game's first goal in the ninth minute as the Crew jumped out to a two-goal first-half lead and won 2-1 at home.
Chicago has won three straight meetings at Toyota Park and has gone 4-0-4 in the last eight matchups there.
Updated September 21, 2012