The Fire put playoff tickets on sale this week, a necessity even though the club is yet to clinch a playoff berth. With the Eastern Conference Knockout Round match either Wednesday or Thursday, Oct. 30 or 31, there won’t be much time for ticket-buying next week.
This last week of the regular season is an unusual one for the Fire. For virtually the entire campaign there was serious doubt the club could qualify for post-season play. Now, with just Sunday’s road match against the New York Red Bulls remaining, it seems highly unlikely the Fire will miss the postseason.
A win over the Red Bulls will put the Fire in for sure, and it could even elevate the Fire from fourth to third place in the standings depending on the results of other games.
A draw, or even a loss, won’t necessarily keep the Fire out of the playoffs, either. The Fire could get in without a Sunday win if the Houston Dynamo either ties or loses against D.C. United or the New England Revolution either ties or loses at Columbus. Both those matches are also on Sunday and will be over before the Fire-New York match is completed.
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The Fire (14-12-7) won’t be waiting for favorable results in the other games, however.
"It doesn’t make a difference,’’ said midfielder Patrick Nyarko. "The guys in our lockerroom are experienced enough to know that it’s about us now. We are not looking for the results to get us in. We need to get our own result to get us in. We’ll stay focused on the game at hand, which is New York, and it will be a tough game.’’
Indeed it will. The Red Bulls (16-9-8) lead the Eastern Conference by one standings point over Sporting Kansas City and also top the standings for the coveted Supporters Shield, which goes to the club with the best overall record in the regular season.
Mid-week preparations in Bridgeview focused on the Fire gearing up for a match without midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, who has worn the captain’s armband most of the season. He was issued a controversial red card in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Toronto FC at Toyota Park and will serve a one-game suspension when his teammates visit the Red Bulls.
"Extremely disappointing,’’ admitted Larentowicz. "But the guys will be all right. I have faith in everyone here. They know the task at hand. They’ll take care of business.’’
Coach Frank Klopas feels the same way.
"Jeff is a veteran player, but we rely on the team,’’ said Klopas. "We’ve talked about this since the beginning, and there are moments in the season where you’re going to rely on everyone. Jeff has been fantastic for us, but other guys will step in and get the job done.’’
Larentowicz’ replacement could be Alex, the Brazilian who has provided a frequent offensive spark in recent weeks. Logan Pause, the team captain who has played a reserve role most of the season, is another possibility.
"We have players who can step in at any point in time,’’ said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. "Everybody can step up and play their part to help get us into the playoffs. It’s about getting results, so we’ll use practice this week to prepare for whomever is going to be in there. We’re going to be OK.’’
Last year the Fire returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence and hosted the Knockout Round match, losing 2-1 to Houston. The Knockout Round will be avoided if the Fire climbs into third place on Sunday. A third-place finish will get the Fire automatically into the conference semifinals, which begin on Nov. 2.