For now, at least, Sunday’s battle between the Fire and New York Red Bulls is the most important match of the weekend in Major League Soccer.
The Fire needs a win to clinch a playoff berth. The Red Bulls, the host team on Sunday, need a win to clinch their first honor -- the MLS Supporters Shield, which goes to the club with the most standings points in the regular season.
By the time the teams take the field, however, the edge could be off for the Red Bulls and by halftime the Fire might not be sweating it out quite so much, either. It’s a complicated scenario that will unfold over the weekend, and it’s hard to imagine an ending that would be more suspenseful.
Sporting Kansas City, in second place behind the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference, has 55 points going into Saturday’s match at Philadelphia. New York (16-9-8) has 56. If SKC loses its road match, the Red Bulls will be assured the most points in the East. (A win is worth three points and a draw one).
If the Portland Timbers tie or lose their last regular season match at Chivas USA on Saturday, the Red Bulls will claim the Supporters Shield with a tie on Sunday. Real Salt Lake, the points leader in the Western Conference, also has 56 but its season is over. Portland has 54 points and will put pressure on the Red Bulls with a win on Saturday night.
On the Fire’s side, a playoff berth will be assured if New England doesn’t win at Columbus or Houston doesn’t win at D.C. United on Saturday. Both those matches start before the Fire and Red Bulls take the field.
Another match that affects the Fire is the Montreal at Toronto match on Saturday. The Fire (14-12-7) could move into third place in the East with a victory if the Impact falters. The standings are super-tight in places three through seven and only five teams will advance to postseason play, which begins next Wednesday with the first of the two Knockout Round matches between teams finishing fourth and fifth in the standings.
The point standings for the bubble teams going into Saturday’s matches show Montreal in third place with 49 points and Philadelphia in seventh with 46. In between (with tiebreakers affecting the positions in the standings, are the Fire (49), New England (48) and Houston (48).
Patrick Nyarko, the Fire’s veteran outside midfielder, thinks it’s a blessing the playoff battle is going down to the last game.
"I always think back to last year, when we clinched early," said Nyarko. "We took our concentration off a little bit. That didn’t help us going into the playoffs."
That’s for sure. The Fire hosted the Knockout Round match against Houston and lost 2-1. The Dynamo went on to the MLS Cup final for the second straight year, losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The Fire has a good record against the Red Bulls over the years. They helped New York open Red Bull Arena on March 27, 2010, and lost 1-0 as present Fire midfielder Joel Lindpere scored the lone goal of the match for the host team. Lindpere joined the Fire this season and leads the team with seven assists.
After that first visit to Red Bull Area, however, the Fire has played the Red Bulls tough. They met again in 2010, the teams battling to a scoreless draw. They also played to two draws in the 2011 regular season but the Fire hammered New York 4-0 in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Last season the Fire won two of three matches with the Red Bulls and this season the Fire was a 3-1 winner on April 7 at Toyota Park in their only previous meeting.
The Fire will have to cope without veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz on Sunday. He’ll sit out a one-game suspension for the red card he drew in the 1-0 victory over Toronto FC in last Saturday’s regular season home finale. Though Larentowicz wore the armband most of the season, official captain Logan Pause could be on the field in his place on Sunday. Alex, the up-and-coming Brazilian midfielder, is also an option as Larentowicz’ replacement
Also on the line is the MLS Golden Boot. The Fire’s Mike Magee is tied for the lead with Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio. Both have 20 goals – the 11th and 12th players to score that many in an MLS regular season – and Magee has 14 of his with the Fire since coming to the club in an early season trade with Los Angeles.
Magee is also in the hunt for the Most Valuable Player award, though the Fire may need to make the playoffs for him to get enough voting support.
"I know what’s really at stake, and it’s not the MVP award or the Golden Boot or any other award,’’ said Magee. "It’s about getting into the playoffs and knowing that anything can happen from there."