The Fire is back in playoff position in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference. That’s a big positive, though the club’s playoff status might last barely 24 hours.
Friday’s 3-0 road victory at D.C. United was both vital and exhilarating. The three standings points gained from it made the Fire (12-12-7) the No. 5 team in the East with 43 points in 31 matches. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the standings could shuffle again after Saturday’s matches. No. 6 Philadelphia, with 42 points in 30 matches, hosts Toronto FC. No. 7 Columbus, 41 points in 31 outings, hosts Sporting Kansas City and No. 8 New England, 41 points in 30 games, visits the New York Red Bulls.
If Philadelphia, Columbus and New England all win on Saturday the point standings will have the Union back in fifth with 45 points and Columbus and New England will also move ahead of the Fire with 44. But, that’s if they all win.
This playoff race will come down to the Fire’s last match, at New York on Oct. 27. To qualify for postseason play for the second straight year the Fire must play well in its two matches on the road -- Oct. 12 at FC Dallas and the finale against the Red Bulls. There’s also the matter of winning the last home game, on Oct. 19 against struggling Toronto FC.
Beating Toronto will be a must, just as the victory at D.C. United was. The Fire must at least beat the lower level teams in its stretch run. None are lower the United, which dropped its ninth match at RFK Stadium this season and is in the throes of a nine-match winless streak overall (0-7-2).
Though United (3-22-6) won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in a shocking upset earlier in the week, the Fire’s road win on Friday wasn’t that great an accomplishment from the long-term perspective. United, with three wins in 31 leagues matches, is on the brink of becoming the worst team ever in MLS. The now defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny won only four matches in 2001 – the last of its six campaigns – and Chivas USA won only four in its first season in 2005.
And the Fire didn’t even see the best that United had to offer. Coach Ben Olsen rested most of his players who won the Open Cup at Real Salt Lake on Tuesday. Only four players started both the Open Cup final and against the Fire. Fire defender Bakary Soumare called the United lineup "kind of a second string team."
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Still, the Fire didn’t have an easy time of it. It took goals from unlikely goal-scorers and spectacular goalkeeping by Sean Johnson to get this win, as United got off six more shots than the Fire and had a big edge in possession time. The scoreboard didn’t reflect that disparity, though.
The Fire got the only goal it needed from Jeff Larentowicz in the 24th minute. Larentowicz, who had scored only one previous goal for the Fire this season, tallied from a difficult angle after taking a pass from the steadily-improving Juan Luis Anangono. Two minutes later Soumare scored unassisted – the central defender’s first-ever MLS goal.
Tracy Amarikwa, who replaced Anangono in the 80th minute, scored an insurance goal in the 89th minute.
The Fire is only 3-8-4 in road matches, and Friday’s success was encouraging for coach Frank Klopas’ playoff hopes.
"We needed to get points," said Klopas. "We’re playing four games (counting D.C. United) – three on the road—and we need to find points to be there. It’s never easy."
"We’re in the playoff race, and we want to stay alive," said Larentowicz. "Every time we’ve gone on the road and had an opportunity to push ourselves further in the playoff race we haven’t done it – but (this time) we did it."
Johnson called the win "huge."
"We got three points when we’re fighting for a playoff spot," said Johnson. "It’s massive no matter where you are – home or away. Everyone should be happy."
For awhile, at least.
Joel Lindpere, who didn’t play on Friday, and Arevalo Rios, who went all 90 minutes, left the Fire on Saturday to join their national teams for World Cup qualifying. They’ll miss the FC Dallas match.
FC Dallas (10-10-10 before visiting Real Salt Lake on Saturday) is down in eighth place in the Western Conference.