One thing is certain: you never know what you’re going to get from the Fire this season.
That’s not necessarily a good thing, witness last Wednesday’s most disappointing home loss to lowly D.C. United in the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
But, then again, the unpredictable nature of this year’s Fire squad isn’t all bad, either. Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the Montreal Impact is proof of that. The Fire may be out of the summer-long Open Cup, but it is very much alive again in the battle for an Eastern Conference playoff berth in Major League Soccer.
Saturday’s performance was almost as uplifting as Wednesday’s loss was disappointing. The Fire pulled off the win without MLS Golden Boot leader Mike Magee (right calf strain) and always dangerous midfielder Patrick Nyarko (concussion-like symptoms), and a third consistent offensive threat – Chris Rolfe – was mostly on the bench for the Fire’s third match in eight days.
To patch up his lineup coach Frank Klopas gave newly-signed Ecuadoran striker Juan Luis Anangano his first start and used Alex, the Brazilian midfielder, up top for the first time.
The good result over the fourth-place club in the East was also surprising because the Fire shook off its disturbing habit of permitting the opposing team to score first. The Fire was up 2-0 in this one thanks to unassisted goals by Joel Lindpere in the sixth minute and Dilly Duka in the 23rd. Felipe Martins scored for the Impact (10-7-5) in the 57th minute but the Fire didn’t give up the equalizer, the biggest reason being Rolfe’s clearing header following an Impact corner kicker in second half stoppage time.
Not only did the win extend the Fire’s unbeaten streak in MLS to four matches (3-0-1), it also pulled the club to the .500 level (9-9-4) and within two points of the fifth and last playoff spot with 12 matches left in the regular season.
Klopas called the win "massive, important, huge" -- and he wasn’t wrong. The Fire started the season 2-7-1, so to get this close to a postseason berth represents an impressive comeback. The job is far from done, however. The next three matches are against teams that are also in the thick of the playoff race – New England on Saturday, Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 23 and Houston on Sept. 1 – but only the next match of those three will be away from Bridgeview.
Going into the next series of games Montreal is fourth with 35 points in 22 matches, Houston fifth with 33 in 22, the Fire sixth with 31 in 22 and New England seventh with 30 in 23. Each team plays 34 times in this MLS regular season that ends in October.
"Everybody had written us off from the start, but it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish," said Klopas. "We need points, we are right there. Credit to my players. They’ve never given up and never will until the end."
More uncertainty lies ahead for the Fire, since the roster is about to undergo another big change. To his credit president of soccer operations Javier Leon has not been reluctant to bring in players to improve a struggling team. He’s done a great job of improving the depth, which clearly wasn’t there at the start of the season, and the addition of Magee alone made the offense notably better.
The Fire, however, still doesn’t have the attacking midfielder it had during its best years when Peter Nowak and Cuauhtemoc Blanco were around. Perhaps Arevalo Rios, a 31-year old Uruguayan midfielder, will prove skilled enough to correct that problem.
Rios reported to training last Friday after spending time most recently with Palermo of Italy’s prestigious Serie A. The Fire has made no secret of his arrival, but hasn’t announced his signing because he can’t be rostered yet. For one thing, there’s paperwork to finalize. For another, the Fire has to clear up Designated Player and salary cap issues with MLS. They’re expected to be done by loaning out under-achieving strikers Sherjill MacDonald and Maicon Santos.
Neither MacDonald nor Santos was in the 18-man lineup for the Montreal match, even with Magee out. That’s understandable because Quincy Amarikwa has outplayed them both recently. He’s become an exciting spark off the bench and was again on Saturday.
Two things merit consideration with the Rios move, however. He’s been a holding midfielder rather than an attacker. The Fire already has two holding types in captain Logan Pause, who returned to the lineup for the first time since July 27 on Saturday, and Jeff Larentowicz. Alex, who has tried to fill the attacking role, is more comfortable playing closer to the goal. That was clear in the Montreal match. Also, Rios will miss some late-season matches while on national team duty for Uruguay in World Cup qualifying.
Klopas likes what he’s seen of Anangano and is excited about Rios' arrival.
"We definitely have the quality and the depth in the team," said Klopas. "Juan is going to help, and Rios is an unbelievable quality player, a world-class player. We made the commitment. We said 'This is the guy, bring him.' He brings depth, leadership and all that stuff."