Fire gear up for playoffs, Dynamo

928033.png

Fire gear up for playoffs, Dynamo

The Fire goes into its first Major League Soccer playoff match since 2009 on Wednesday lacking momentum and postseason experience. Maybe that matters, maybe not.

For most of the 34-match regular season the Fire (17-11-6) was a feel-good, uplifting story. In the last five matches, though, the Fire was 1-3-1 and lost to two clubs (Philadelphia and New England) that had long been eliminated from playoff contention. In its last match, with a chance to claim second place in the Eastern Conference with a win before a sellout home crowd, the Fire scored first but settled for a 1-1 draw against D.C. United.

As far as postseason experience goes, the team doesnt have much. Only eight Fire players have played in an MLS playoff match, and only four did it with the Fire. Chris Rolfe played in 14, captain Logan Pause 13, Gonzalo Segares 12 and Patrick Nyarko four. They will add to their numbers on Wednesday when they take on the Houston Dynamo (14-9-11 in the regular season) at Toyota Park at 8 p.m.

The Dynamo is long on playoff experience, with most of the team that went to last years MLS Cup still on the roster. Houston has also won twice as many MLS Cups (two, in 2006 and 2007) than the Fire (one, in its inaugural campaign of 1998). The Dynamo lost last years championship match 1-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

While Houston finished four points behind the Fire in fifth place, the Dynamo season included a run to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The Fire lost its lone U.S. Open Cup, the clubs lone tournament appearance of 2012.

Still, the Fire has some things going in what MLS has dubbed the Knockout Round of its current playoff format. For one, there's familiarity with the opponent.

Its crazy in this league, said Fire Defender-of-the-Year Arne Friedrich, who starred in Germany before coming here. Weve played Vancouver once. Well be playing Houston for the fourth time. This is MLS. Welcome to America.

Not only has the Fire played the Dynamo three times already this season, the Fire won the season series.

The first match was the strangest of the campaign for both clubs. It didnt last the full 90 minutes. Officials called it a 1-1 draw after 66 minutes because of severe weather at Toyota Park on April 15. The teams were scoreless on July 3 at BBVA Compass Stadium, and goals by Nyarko, Daniel Paladini and Alex gave the Fire a 3-1 victory in Bridgeview on Sept. 2.

The Fire has also been solid at home (11-3-3), despite the unimpressive finish to the regular season, and has a good track record (6-3-2) in the first round of its playoff matches over the years. Though the Fire missed postseason play in 2010 and 2011, the Fire is in the playoffs for the 12th time in 15 seasons by far the best success rate of Chicagos major pro teams.

The Bulls and Blackhawks made it in 10 of their first 15 campaigns, the Bears eight, the Cubs four and the Sox two. In the last 15 seasons the Bulls had eight playoff appearances, the Blackhawks and Cubs five, the Bears four and the Sox three. An interesting statistical tidbit, if nothing else.

Wednesdays match will be the Fires first-ever on Halloween and its first postseason meeting against Houston. The Dynamo is led by forward Will Bruin, who has 17 goals in his first two MLS seasons with 12 of them coming this season. Houstons most dangerous player, though, is midfielder Brad Davis. His 12 assists are twice as many as any of his teammates, and he also had eight regular-season goals. Midfielder Ricardo Clark will be marking his eighth season on an MLS playoff qualifier.

The teams made one big trade, on March 23, 2011, that helped both clubs. The Fire acquired speedy Dominic Oduro for injury-plagued striker Calen Carr. Both performed well for their new teams the last two seasons, though neither are starters now.

More than anything, the Fire has to shake off the disappointing draw with D.C. United, which deprived the club of a weeks rest before starting its playoff run.

It was disappointing, and it stinks, said Nyarko. But its just one extra game, and its good that its at home.

If the Fire does win on Wednesday the next step in the playoffs will be even more difficult a two-game home-and-home semifinal series against Eastern Conference regular season champion Sporting Kansas City. That round would begin on Sunday at Toyota Park if the Fire can get by the Dynamo.

2012 MLS playoffs Predicitions

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Knockout Round -- FIRE over Houston; Semifinals Sporting Kansas City over FIRE, D.C. United over New York. Conference Final Sporting Kansas City over D.C. United.

WESTERN CONFERENCE: Knockout Round Vancouver over Los Angeles; Semifinals San Jose over Vancouver, Seattle over Real Salt Lake. Conference Final San Jose over Seattle.

MLS CUP: San Jose over Sporting Kansas City.

Fire hope to damage rival Columbus' playoff hopes Saturday on CSN+

Fire hope to damage rival Columbus' playoff hopes Saturday on CSN+

The Chicago Fire’s current three-game road trip started with back-to-back losses and Saturday’s trip to Columbus represents the last chance to salvage something from the road trip.

To start the trip the Fire lost to New York City FC 4-1 and followed up with a 1-0 loss in Seattle. The Fire are trying to avoid the second 0-3 road trip of the season, following a similar cross-country trip in May.

Saturday’s match at the Columbus Crew will be televised on CSN+ (channel finder). Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

Back on March 19, the third match of the season, the Fire hosted the Crew and the game was a goalless draw. The two teams also played in the U.S. Open Cup on June 28, a 2-1 Fire win.

Norwegian-born forward Ola Kamara has since emerged as one of the best goalscorers in Major League Soccer this season. The 26-year-old joined the Crew in the offseason, but made just three substitute appearances totaling 50 minutes in the team’s first nine matches. The trade of Kei Kamara, no relation, opened up a spot at forward and Ola Kamara took advantage.

Kamara has five goals in the past four matches and is up to 15 on the season despite starting just 19 matches. He did not play against the Fire in March, but started in the Open Cup loss to the Fire and was subbed off at halftime.

[SHOP: Get your own Fire home jersey here]

The Fire (6-15-9, 27 points) are freshly eliminated from playoff contention while Columbus (7-12-11, 32 points) is still holding onto hope, but barely. The Crew’s 3-0 loss at D.C. on Wednesday was a crippling blow to Columbus’ playoff chances.

After Saturday's match, which is also Columbus’ home finale, the teams will play again in the next match for both on Oct. 13 at Toyota Park. The international break will split up the matches, but the Fire will return home from the road trip to host the Crew for the third time in 2016.

Two Fire players will leave to join national teams during that break. David Accam will rejoin Ghana for its opening World Cup qualifier against Uganda on Oct. 7 and play at South Africa on Oct. 11. Collin Fernandez will join Peru’s U-20 team.

Injury wise, Matt Lampson is still out for the Fire. Cedrick Mabwati is out for the Crew and playmaker Federico Higuain has missed the last four games, but is listed as questionable.

Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Where: MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

Red Stars enter NWSL semifinals with chip on shoulder

raetzman-0929.jpg
Dan Bartel, ISI Photos

Red Stars enter NWSL semifinals with chip on shoulder

Just over a year ago the Chicago Red Stars hosted a National Women’s Soccer League semifinal and had high expectations for a playoff run.

However, it all came crashing down quickly in a 3-0 loss at Toyota Park in which visiting FC Kansas City scored all three goals in the first 25 minutes. Kansas City went on to win the league title and the Red Stars were left to wonder what the heck just happened.

Now, the Red Stars have a chance at redemption in a return to the NWSL semifinals. The Red Stars will visit the Washington Spirit on Friday.

“I’m personally really excited to play on Friday, to be back in the semifinals the year after kind of a hard loss last season against Kansas City,” Red Stars forward Christen Press said. “I think that the girls that were here last year we kind of have a chip on our shoulder about that match and how it went down. I think that’s helped motivate us to get back.”

After finishing third in the NWSL regular season the Red Stars have to go on the road in this year’s semifinal. The Spirit and Red Stars are the only two teams to return from the 2015 playoffs and both lost 3-0 in the semifinals so the redemption factor goes both ways.

The Red Stars are well aware of what happened last year, but coach Rory Dames doesn’t expect a repeat.

“I expect the game to not be over 20 minutes in,” Dames said. “Different team, different year.”

[SHOP: Pick up a national team jersey t-shirt of Red Stars defender Julie Johnston]

This year’s Red Stars racked up plenty of individual accolades in getting back to the playoffs. Press is one of five finalists for league MVP, Julie Johnston and Arin Gilliland are Defender of the Year finalists and Alyssa Naeher is up for Goalkeeper of the Year.

A win would push the Red Stars into the club’s first NWSL final in the NWSL’s fourth season. Last year’s semifinal was the first playoff appearance for the Red Stars.

The Red Stars just beat the Spirit on Saturday 3-1 in the regular season finale at Toyota Park. Back on July 9 the Spirit won 2-0 at the Maryland SoccerPlex, host site of Friday’s semifinal.

“We played them at (their) home earlier in the season and it didn’t end the way we wanted,” said midfielder Courtney Raetzman, who graduated from Conant High School in Hoffman Estates. “But I think we showed that we can play with them and as our game just showed, we beat them and we probably didn’t even perform to our absolute best so I’m really excited going into this next game.”

Dames said playing back-to-back games against a playoff opponent “isn’t ideal” in terms of coaching but it’s also a confidence boost to have a win heading into the playoffs.

“I think it’s a good and a bad thing because we both have extra video on each other, on playing each other specifically,” midfielder Taylor Comeau said. “We have a couple things that we definitely want to clean up and we’ll rewatch the film and clean up just what we think we need to and hopefully have a better performance in the next game.”

The winner of Friday’s semifinal will play in the NWSL final in Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium on Oct. 9.