A return to the Major League Soccer playoffs seems very possible for the Fire now. That hasn’t been the case for most of the club’s mediocre season, but Saturday’s 3-2 road win over FC Dallas was an eye-opener.
Road wins have been particularly hard to come by for the Fire (13-12-7), but the club stormed out to a 3-0 lead in this one and hung on despite some inconsistent officiating. Kenny Cooper rallied the host team with two second-half goals, the second on a penalty kick, but that wasn’t enough to derail the Fire.
"With games running out we knew this game needed to get three points," said Fire coach Frank Klopas. "For sure this was a massive win."
How massive was it?
Well, the Fire’s 46 standings points matches that of the fading Montreal Impact and the gritty Philadelphia Union. Factoring in tiebreakers, the Impact is No. 4, the Fire No. 5 and the Union No. 6 in the Eastern Conference. The top five make postseason play.
Montreal, a 1-0 loser to New England on Saturday, has three games left with two of them this week — Wednesday at Los Angeles and a home match with Philadelphia on Saturday. New England, which lost winger Saer Sene to a gruesome injury against Montreal, hosts the Columbus Crew on Saturday.
The Revs, with 45 points in 32 matches, are still mathematically in the playoff race as well. Sene suffered a dislocated left ankle and broken left fibula — a sobering moment in what was perhaps New England’s biggest win of the season.
There’s much more to consider with the Fire, however. Klopas didn’t have midfielders Joel Lindpere or Arevalo Rios at Dallas. Both are on national team duty, Lindpere for Estonia and Rios for Uruguay. Both were on losing sides for their national teams in World Cup qualifying on Friday. Estonia is at Romania and Uruguay hosts Argentina on Tuesday before Lindpere and Rios rejoin the Fire for the last two games of the MLS regular season.
They’ll be needed, as the Fire concludes its home season against Toronto FC on Saturday and visits the New York Red Bulls on Oct. 27. Injuries in Saturday’s match to Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka underscore the Fire’s need for depth now more than ever.
Klopas went with defense in his substitutions at Dallas. Wells Thompson made a rare first team appearance for Duka in the 68th minute, Daniel Paladini spelled Nyarko in the 80th and Logan Pause came on for Mike Magee in the 82nd. The fresh players enabled the Fire to protect its lead — barely.
Magee had an interesting night. He assisted on Juan Luis Anangano’s goal, then scored himself when a shot by Alex hit him in the ribs and caromed into the net. Magee was ducking to avoid getting hit in the head by Alex’ shot when the ball struck him.
"Strangest goal I’ve scored," said Magee — but it was a big one. With it he moved into a tie with Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio for the lead in MLS’ Golden Boot race.
Those two goals came in the first half. After the break came the biggest goal of all, by defender Jalil Anibaba in the 52nd minute. His bender from outside the penalty area on a corner kick play found the net and astounded Magee.
"This isn’t a knock on Jalil, but I don’t think anyone in Chicago was expecting him to do that," said Magee. "He’s a great defender, a great kid (but) if we have a guy trying to bend one into the far upper-90 it’s normally not going to be him. But, thankfully, this time it was him."
It was Anibaba’s first goal of this season and only the fourth in his three-year MLS career.
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson left the club on Sunday as a late callup to the U.S. national team for its last World Cup qualifier. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann sent four starters, among them starting goalkeeper Tim Howard, back to their club teams because Tuesday’s match at Panama has little meaning.
The U.S. is already assured a berth in next year’s World Cup finals. So, Howard’s usual backup — Chicago-raised Brad Guzan — will get the start at Panama and either Nick Rimando or Johnson will be the backup. Johnson, like Rios and Lindpere, will be back with the Fire for the last two regular season matches.