With 10 matches left in Major League Soccer’s regular season Sunday’s Toyota Park battle with the Houston Dynamo shouldn’t be considered a must-win for the Fire – but it’s close. Neither the Fire (10-10-4) nor the Dynamo (10-8-6) are in playoff position in the Eastern Conference going into the last of their three regular season meetings this season. Houston, though, was tied with fifth-place New England on standings points – both had 36 – entering a busy weekend of MLS action.
It’s a three-team battle for the fifth and last playoff spot now, and the Fire (34 points) can leapfrog past the Dynamo with a win on Sunday. New England (10-9-6) visits Toronto FC on Friday. The Revs hold the last playoff spot on the basis of the goals-scored tiebreaker.
The importance of a good result on Sunday is underscored by some other factors affecting the Fire. For one, the Fire will have only three home matches left in the nine remaining in the regular season. The Fire has been a good home team; its 8-4-1 mark in Bridgeview is the second-best home record in the East. The Fire hasn’t been good on the road, where its 2-6-3 mark is second-worst in the conference.
For another the Fire will be weakened by national team callups for the two matches – both on the road – that immediately follow Houston’s visit. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann chose Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando over the Fire’s Sean Johnson as his third goalkeeper for World Cup qualifiers at Costa Rica on Friday, Sept. 6 and against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 10. That was bad news for Johnson, but good news for the Fire. It always helps to have the star goalkeeper available. Still midfielders Joel Lindpere and Arevalo Rios won’t be available for road matches against Seattle on Wednesday, Sept. 7, and Toronto FC on Sept. 11.
Lindpere leaves after Sunday’s match to join Estonia for World Cup qualifiers against the Netherlands on Friday, Sept. 6, and at Hungary on Sept. 12. Rios leaves on Monday to be with Uruguay for World Cup qualifiers at Peru on Friday, Sept. 6, and vs. Colombia on Sept. 10. Though the Fire’s schedule is overloaded with road matches after Houston’s visit, the opposition in those six trips includes stops against the Toronto FC and D.C. United – the bottom two teams in the conference with only seven wins between them this season. That’s encouraging, because the Fire desperately needs points on the road.
Looking past Houston to the travails of travel wouldn’t be a good idea for the Fire, however. Houston has been a tough opponent, regardless of the venue.
Last season the Fire returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence as the No. 4 team in the East and the Dynamo was No. 5. Houston responded with a 2-1 win at Toyota Park in the Knockout Round of postseason play and went on to reach the MLS Cup final for the second straight year.
The Fire didn’t beat Houston in their two previous meetings this season, either. The Dynamo won 2-1 on April 14 and the July 27 meeting ended 1-1. Both battles were in Houston. But some other factors could benefit the Fire for the third meeting.
For one, the team will be healthy. There are no players on the weekly injured report.
For another the Fire is rested and coming in with some momentum. The last match on Aug. 23 was a rousing 2-1 home win over Sporting Kansas City. The Dynamo isn’t so well-rested or carrying as much momentum. Houston was battered 5-0 at Montreal the day after the Fire’s last match and then had to play Arabe Unido of Panama in the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday. That one ended in a 2-1 Houston win.
The Fire may have finally found a way to score first against SKC, having tallied twice before the visitors got on the board, and that’s a good omen. The Fire is 23-0-5 in matches when it scored first since Frank Klopas became the club’s head coach.