Sunday’s result in the last match of the season was in line with the year the Fire just endured. The 5-2 road defeat to the New York Red Bulls concluded the strangest season in the Fire’s 16-year history. The overriding theme was one of frustration.
The Fire (14-13-7) was in a great position to climb all the way up to third place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference at Sunday’s kickoff. That would have been the club’s highest status in the eight-month campaign.
All the Fire needed – thanks to Toronto FC’s 1-0 upset of the Montreal Impact on Saturday -- was a fourth straight win to nab third place and avoid the Knockout Round of the MLS playoffs. And, all the Fire needed was a draw to get into postseason play, which would have been a notable accomplishment given the horrendous start to the season.
In the end, though, the Fire got neither. The 49-point total enabled the Fire to match fifth-place Montreal in the Eastern Conference standings, but the Impact owned the tiebreaker to claim the last playoff spot.
The Fire was in playoff position when the final weekend of the regular season began and, even with a loss to the high-flying Red Bulls, the Fire would have been in the playoffs had the New England Revolution or Houston Dynamo failed to win Sunday road games. Unfortunately for the Fire, both did. The Revs beat Columbus 1-0 and the Dynamo edged D.C. United 2-1.
Houston’s win came early on Sunday, New England’s while the Fire-New York match was in progress. Regardless, the Fire played to win and wasn’t waiting on a favorable result in one of the other matches.
Mike Magee gave the Fire a 1-0 lead in the sixth minute, and that was a good omen. Prior to Sunday the Fire had lost just once when scoring first since Frank Klopas took over the coaching reigns midway through the 2011 season. This season the Red Bulls (17-9-8) failed to win when the opponent scored first – until Sunday.
Magee notched his 21st goal of the season – and 15th for the Fire since being acquired in an early season trade with Los Angeles – and had a chance to become the team’s first Golden Boot winner. His task was admittedly a difficult one, since Vancouver’s Camilo Sanvezzo, a Brazilian striker, had scored three goals in a 3-0 win over Colorado on Saturday to take over the lead in the Golden Boot standings with 22 goals.
Still, Magee could have taken the scoring title if he had kept finding the net. He couldn’t. As soon as Thierry Henry scored a great goal for the Red Bulls in the 24th minute the Fire’s hopes grew faint. It was 1-1 at halftime before New York got goals from Ibrahim Sekagyaa, Lloyd Sam, Eric Alexander and Jonathan Steele. Peguy Luyindula assisted on three of them, to the delight of an aroused 25,219 at Red Bull Arena. Quincy Amarikwa scored the final goal of the season for the Fire in the 90th minute.
It was a milestone match for the New York franchise, the Red Bulls winning the MLS Supporters Shield for the first time. It goes to the team with the best regular season record, and the win gave New York a one-point edge on Sporting Kansas City. The Fire has won the Supporters Shield only once, back in 2003. For New York, it was the biggest honor in franchise history. That team was an original MLS member in 1996.
In retrospect, the Fire let the season slip away at the beginning and in September. The Fire won only twice in its first 11 matches (2-7-2). In September the team gave up valuable standings points three times in the 87th minute of matches or later.
"We were probably the best team in the league in the second half of the season," said Klopas.
He could be right, but watching a month of postseason matches won’t be pleasant. This is the third time in the last four years that the Fire has missed the playoffs. The club hasn’t won a postseason match since going to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009 when Denis Hamlett was in his last season as the head coach.
"It’s going to hurt for awhile," admitted Magee, who has plenty of support for Most Valuable Player consideration even though his team is done playing. "It’s cool to score goals and all, but you play the game to lift the trophy and to come that close after so much work just to get ourselves back in a spot to have a chance at making the playoffs – to be honest, it’s heartbreaking."
That it is. Postseason play begins on Wednesday with the Western Conference Knockout Round match pitting the Colorado Rapids at the Seattle Sounders. The Eastern Conference Knockout Round match – Montreal at Houston – is on Thursday.
The conference semifinals and finals will be two-match, home-and-home affairs. The semifinals will be played Nov. 2-3 and Nov. 6-7 and the finals No. 9-10 and Nov. 23-24. The MLS Cup final is Dec. 7.