Coach Frank Klopas certainly felt the exhilaration from the Fire’s 3-2 victory over the New England Revolution on Saturday.
"It was one of those games that, when you think of the history of the team, this is one of the games that’s out there," he said.
Given the rich history of the franchise, that was a stretch. Still – in the context of this season – the win before 17,104 at Toyota Park was a big one. After blowing a chance to reach the final in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and blowing opportunities for much-needed standings points in the three previous matches in Major League Soccer the Fire finally won a game that had a lot on the line.
The Fire came from behind twice to claim this one, and the reward was – for the first time this season – a place in playoff position in the Eastern Conference. The Fire (11-11-6) has bounced back from a 2-7-2 start to the season and getting into the No. 5 spot is a big deal.
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It’s nothing to get giddy about, though. There’s six games remaining, and four of those are on the road where the Fire is just 2-7-4 this season. The work is far from done.
"The group has the right mentality," Klopas said. "You want to be right there in the end and we are right there, so there is a lot to play for. We are very excited to be in this position. The guys have earned it with all the hard work."
No argument there, but here are the cold hard facts:
Points-wise, the Fire is only tied for the No. 5 spot. The Philadelphia Union, which suffered a 1-0 home loss to the Houston Dynamo in another big Saturday night matchup, also has 39 points. The Fire accumulated that number in 28 matches and the Union in 29. New England, with 37 points in 28 matches, is also in the playoff mix.
On the other hand, the Fire could jump into fourth place – which means home field advantage in the Knockout Round of the playoffs – with a strong finish. Houston is just one point in front of the Fire after its big win in Philly. (Last season the Fire returned to postseason play after a two-year absence, hosted the Knockout Round match and was beaten by Houston).
Two things stand out about Saturday’s Fire-Revs match. The Fire faithful were more vocal about the officiating than they have been all season. Referee Ismail Elfath was booed repeatedly, especially in the first half that ended when he was confronted by Fire players and coaches protesting a series of questionable calls. After that match New England had similar gripes about the officiating. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best example of officiating this season – by a long shot.
Then there was the lineup juggling done by Klopas. A shakeup was definitely in order after the 1-1 draw at Toronto on Wednesday and the two late-game collapses before that, matches in which the Fire gave up goals in the 89th minute to let a home win slip away against Houston and a tie go by the wayside at Vancouver.
Klopas had good reason to use his bench, and his players responded. Midfielders Arevalo Rios and Joel Lindpere, both back from national team duty, made the first 11 after being absent for two matches. Patrick Nyarko played ahead of Dilly Duka on the left side of the midfield and – in the most noteworthy switch – Juan Luis Anangono started instead of Chris Rolfe up top. Rolfe didn’t even get off the bench, Klopas going with Quincy Amarikwa when Anangano was deemed in need of rest.
Klopas downplayed the possibility that the changes were made over his displeasure with the Toronto match – the second of two road matches in a row in a three-games-in-eight days stretch.
"One of the reasons was that (the Toronto match) was the third game within a week," he said. "We monitor the recovery of some of the guys with the technology that we have...Some of the guys were fatigued."
That showed at times. Kelyn Rowe gave New England an early lead with a 30-yard chip over leaping goalkeeper Sean Johnson in the ninth minute and the second Revs’ goal came when Saer Sene beat a lagging Fire defense from 15 yards in first half stoppage time. (Klopas felt a handball should have disallowed that one).
The Fire matched Rowe’s goal when Anangano bulled his way into the box on a great individual effort that resulted in his first MLS goal. The midseason acquisition from Ecuador was a force all night, an indication he’s getting more and more comfortable with his new team.
Mike Magee, staying in the hunt for MLS’ Golden Boot, matched Sene’s goal in the 55th minute. He had assisted on Anangano’s goal before scoring his 16th of the season.
The stalemate remained until the 86th minute when Alex, the Brazilian midfielder who didn’t enter the match until the 83rd, blasted the rebound of a Magee corner kick into the net from 20 yards out – an unassisted game-winner.
Overall, Klopas’ use of his full roster paid off handsomely. Lindpere assisted on Anangono’s goal – his team-leading seventh helper of the season. Nyarko assisted on Magee’s tally – his 32nd in MLS play. That pushed Nyarko ahead of Diego Gutierrez and into fifth place on the Fire’s all-time assist list.
It was a night for celebration.
"This is probably our third chance at trying to get a win and move into the top five," said Magee. "It’s nice to get that weight off of our back...To get over the hump is a big step."
A sobering thought, though. The Fire goes to Montreal next – a Saturday battle that matches Magee with Marco Di Vaio, his main rival for the Golden Boot. Di Vaio scored his 18th in a 2-1 home loss to Columbus on Saturday, but the Impact (13-8-6) still stands second to the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings.