Saturday was a strange night for Chicago soccer.
Arguably the best-played match of the season at Toyota Park was staged in an ideal soccer atmosphere, but it didnt involve the Fire. The citys Major League Soccer club was in Boston, playing a bad game in a bad setting at a crucial point in the season.
Toyota Park welcomed the top two teams in the current FIFA Womens World Rankings, and it drew a sellout crowd announced at 19,522. The stadiums seating capacity is 20,000 and the Fire drew 20,563 against the Los Angeles Galaxy in its lone sellout of this season, but forget the seeming contradiction in numbers. The Olympic gold medalists from the U.S. played Germany to a 1-1 draw before a most-attentive packed house in Bridgeview.
The Fire, meanwhile, went into its last road match of the MLS regular season against the New England Revolution with the chance to take over first place in the Eastern Conference. Putting on a performance that captain Logan Pause admitted was "kind of blah," the Fire took a 1-0 loss that damaged its playoff positioning.
Not only that, but the atmosphere in New England reflected the problems still plaguing 17-year old MLS. One of its charter teams, the Revolution announced a crowd of 25,534 not bad numerically, but that left Gillette Stadium only one-third filled. The home of footballs New England Patriots is clearly not suited for soccer.
The Fire-New England match was played on artificial turf clearly marked for a National Football League game. The field was also too narrow for an MLS match. The Revs need a new home field, one like most every other team in the league.
Those long-range issues aside, the Fire (17-11-5) put itself in a precarious position for this Saturdays regular season home finale against D.C. United (17-10-6). United climbed ahead of the Fire and into second place in the Eastern Conference by beating the Columbus Crew 3-2 in another Saturday night matchup.
The loss in New England, coupled with Sporting Kansas Citys scoreless draw against New York, killed the Fires chances of finishing in first place in the Eastern Conference. Now the Fire could finish as high as second or as low as fifth, depending on the last round of regular season matches.
Finishing second or third would mean a spot in the two-game Eastern semifinal series, to be played Nov. 3 or 4 and Nov. 7 or 8. Finishing fourth or fifth would mean a one-game knockout match on Wednesday or Thursday on the home field of the No. 4 seed to determine the last team in the conference semifinals.
The five Eastern playoff teams were determined over the weekend, but not the order of finish. SKC (17-7-9) needs a draw in its last match at home against the Philadelphia Union to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs. D.C. United (17-10-6) could keep its hopes alive for the top spot with a road win in Bridgeview. New York (15-9-9) sits in the fourth spot with only a Saturday road match at Philadelphia remaining. Fifth-place Houston (14-8-11) concludes at Colorado on Saturday night.
Though theres plenty of uncertainty regarding the postseason, theres no doubt that the Fire must play better the rest of the way than it did under the less-than-ideal circumstances in New England.
"We really just needed to raise our energy level. Thats really what it was about. We just came out flat in the first half," said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. That resulted in the Fire giving up the first goal for the 20th time in 33 matches a revealing statistic that must be improved for the big matches ahead.
The Fire has been a bad team on artificial turf, going 2-9-2 on such surfaces over the last three years, so it wasnt surprising the club struggled in its latest adventure off grass. Coach Frank Klopas didnt want to risk injury to Arne Friedrich, the veteran German defender, on the New England field with a playoff berth already assured. Friedrich was a healthy scratch.
"We dont play on turf much, and we come here and the field is smaller, the bounce is different, we dont practice on turf," said Klopas. "Its different.Its not like we came here underestimating anyone.We just werent that share in the final third when we had opportunities to be so."
Klopas brought Dan Gargan in at right back and moved Jalil Anibaba into the middle against the Revs. Friedrichs absence had little to do with the disappointing outcome, as the defenders limited New England to one shot on goal a 25-yarder by 17-year old Diego Fagundez in the 17th minute. Fagundez was one of several youngsters used by coach Jay Heaps as New England (8-17-8) wound down its disappointing season.
Fagundez goal snapped a 196-minute scoreless streak for New England. The Revs became the first Eastern team to win a season series from the Fire, which has won season series against SKC, New York, Houston, Columbus, Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto. The Fire came out a 4-2 loser in its lone meeting with D.C. United, an Aug. 22 battle on Uniteds field.