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.