Chicago Fire

Why it was a near-perfect weekend for the Fire

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USA TODAY

Why it was a near-perfect weekend for the Fire

As the Fire struggled in July and August it may have seemed that the world was collapsing around them. The team was struggling and the chasing pack in the Eastern Conference were almost all putting positive runs together.

This weekend will feel like a nice change of pace for Fire fans after the forecast for the team's playoff position seemed to be getting worse with each week. Not only did the Fire pick up a 3-0 win against D.C. on Saturday, but the four other teams the Fire (14-9-6, 48 points) is jockeying for playoff position with all failed to win. Here's a look at how everything seemed to break the Fire's way this weekend.

Atlanta 3, Orlando 3

Atlanta's record: 12-8-7 (43 points)

Games remaining: 7 (5 home, 2 away)

The national media is going to focus on the league-record crowd of 70,425 that showed up to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, but the home team couldn't use the crowd to pick up a win. With Leandro Gonzalez Pirez suspended due to yellow card accumulation, the Atlanta defense struggled. Only another Josef Martinez hat trick, his second in a row, kept Atlanta from losing.

Atlanta is five points behind the Fire, but has two games in hand and five more at the Benz. Atlanta still controls its destiny as far as passing the Fire and the next five games are all against teams outside the playoffs, but the Fire did get some extra breathing room.

Vancouver 2, Columbus 2

Columbus' record: 13-12-5 (44 points)

Games remaining: 4 (2 home, 2 away)

The Crew's draw in Vancouver is actually a positive result on its own. Vancouver took the Western Conference lead on Wednesday and had won three in a row entering Saturday's game.

However, Columbus blew a lead in the 92nd minute, meaning the point probably feels more like a missed opportunity than a solid result. The Crew have the fewest games remaining of the Eastern Conference playoff contenders, but does host the New York Red Bulls in a game next Saturday.

Colorado 1, New York City FC 1

NYCFC's record: 15-8-6 (51 points)

Games remaining: 5 (2 home, 3 away)

NYCFC led for most of the game at last-place Colorado, but, like Columbus, blew the lead late. Dominique Badji tied the game in the 88th minute, allowing the Fire to move within three points of second place.

The Fire host NYCFC on Sept. 30 in a game which now could move the Fire into second place if the standings hold for another week. That game will also be the third in eight days for both teams.

New York Red Bulls 0, Philadelphia 0

Red Bulls' record: 12-10-6 (42 points)

Games remaining: 6 (3 home, 3 away)

Of the four draws this weekend, the Red Bulls will probably be the most disappointed. New York hosted a Philadelphia team that is out of the race on Sunday, but couldn't score despite peppering the Union goal. Andre Blake came up with eight saves for Philly, which hosts the Fire next Saturday.

Key players Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan and Tyler Adams came off the bench in an effort to keep them rested for Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup final in Kansas City. A trip to Columbus three days later is a big one for playoff seeding.

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Elsewhere, Montreal and New England lost to significantly dent their fading playoff hopes. Montreal wasn't likely to catch the Fire even before losing at home to Minnesota, but the Impact would have been within three points of the Red Bulls with a win. Unless multiple shocking things happen, the six-team playoff field in the Eastern Conference appears set. It's all about finding out how teams 2-6 rank.

The reason the top seed isn't in question is because Toronto FC is in another stratosphere right now. The Reds traveled to LA without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore (28 goals and 11 assists this season between them) and won 4-0 at the Galaxy anyway. Toronto is 11 points clear of NYCFC in the Supporters' Shield race and could clinch a first-round bye Wednesday against struggling Montreal.

Arturo Alvarez takes advantage of first start since July

Arturo Alvarez takes advantage of first start since July

Arturo Alvarez was a bright spot on a bad Fire team last year, but playing time has been hard to come by in 2017.

Alvarez led the 2016 Fire with nine assists and was tied for third on the team with five goals. Once the team beefed up the midfield and added Nemanja Nikolic at striker, moving Michael de Leeuw into more of a midfield role, in the offseason Alvarez has found himself on the bench for most games this season.

He is 15th on the team with 675 minutes played, but with a number of regulars out, the 32-year-old made his eighth start of 2017 in Saturday’s 3-0 win against D.C. Alvarez delivered an assist on the Fire’s second goal, setting up Brandon Vincent’s diving header with a left-footed cross from the right wing.

“You always want to go out there and do a good job and try to help out the team in any way possible,” Alvarez said. “I think I did that tonight.”

[RELATED: Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win]

Coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out Alvarez in the 71st minute, the Fire’s first sub of the match, citing concerns over match fitness due to a lack of recent starts. This was Alvarez’s first start since July 22 and his fourth in 25 games since he started the first four games of the season.

Alvarez now has three goals and two assists on the season.

“He has had a fantastic attitude during the whole year,” Paunovic said of Alvarez. “I think he was always ready and waiting for the opportunity to come. It happened today and he was ready. How many times I think I’ve said that, everyone in our team understands that very well and that’s the strength of our locker room.”

Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win

Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win

Since the Fire rampaged through May and June, the team and its fans have been aching to see that level of play again.

Saturday’s 3-0 win against D.C. United wasn’t quite there yet, but without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho, Michael de Leeuw and Joao Meira (who played but didn’t start) this game was never going to be about style points. It’s just win, baby time and the Fire did that.

The Fire’s struggles in July and August, combined with hot runs from other teams in the Eastern Conference, have made a first-round bye an outside shot and even a first-round home playoff game is still in question. However, with only five games remaining after Saturday’s victory, it’s just about getting three points and keeping pace.

“The name of the game is when you get to this point in the season, five games left, it’s about peaking at the right time,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “It’s about getting momentum through wins and through solid performances and getting shutouts and making sure you’re solid defensively and making sure your attacking players are creating chances. We won 3-0 and I thought Bill Hamid made five or six ridiculous saves to keep them in the game so you have to say it’s not an unbelievable performance. We’ve had better performances this year. It certainly was a step in the right direction heading towards the playoffs.”

[RELATED: Arturo Alvarez takes advantage of first start since July]

With all the absences (de Leeuw due to yellow card accumulation and the other three due to injury), the starting lineup more closely resembled something the Fire would have sent out a year ago, plus Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic. Even if D.C. is last in the Eastern Conference, this was not the game to expect the Fire to dominate. D.C. entered having won three out of four after summer August additions boosted the team.

“Maybe the (score) says more than actually happened because I think they pushed us very hard,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “The first 15 minutes was very tough for us. The first 15 minutes of the second half also. I think they had better opportunities in these moments, but also it was a great moment for our team.”

Despite admitting D.C. had dominant stretches of the match, United finished with 57 percent possession and 66 percent in the second half, Paunovic thought Saturday’s showing was a sign that the Fire may be returning to its best form.

“We were today what we were looking for the whole season,” Paunovic said. “I think we managed very well the game. From this basis I would say that, yes, Chicago Fire with the performance in attack was finally the Chicago Fire that we were used to seeing this year. A little bit different. The approach obviously was different.”

The key for the Fire going forward is what the team will look like once Schweinsteiger et al return. Three of the last five games are on the road and the team remains in third place.

“We’re starting to pick up positive results again,” McCarty said. “That’s encouraging. We went through a rough patch where even though we played some good games and we played well, we weren’t getting results. Playing well without getting results means nothing to be honest. Right now we’re getting good results and we’re probably playing a little bit more pragmatic than we have in the past.”