A peek at the Major League Soccer standings suggests that a match against D.C. United is just what the Fire needs to jump-start its hopes of playing in the postseason. United has been – by far – the worst team in MLS.
How bad has it been for what was initially the premier club in the circuit? Well, United has won just three of 30 matches and has scored only 20 goals while allowing 52. D.C. will take an eight-game winless streak (0-6-2) into Friday night’s meeting with the Fire at RFK Stadium.
Then again, the Fire had better not take this match lightly. Too much is riding on it, plus D.C. United should be on a high. In this most improbable season the worst team in MLS – United has 11 fewer standings points than any other club – has won a big-time trophy that its league rivals couldn’t.
On Tuesday D.C. United used a goal by Lewis Neal in first-half stoppage time to win the final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The victim was MLS Western Conference-leading Real Salt Lake, which is one standings point away from the top spot in the race for MLS’ Supporters’ Shield.
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Not only that, but D.C. United won its third Open Cup title on RSL’s home turf.
''I’m so happy for our fans and players and organization for hanging in there,'' said United coach Ben Olsen.
Not to be forgotten is the fact that United reached the Open Cup final with a road win almost as impactful. It came against the Fire, a 2-0 victory at Toyota Park on Aug. 7 in the Open Cup semifinals. That loss was devastating, since United was already lagging behind their rivals in MLS and had lost to the Fire twice in Bridgeview – 2-0 on June 2 and 4-1 on July 20.
Another loss, albeit on D.C. United’s home turf, would be devastating to the Fire’s playoff hopes this time – and they aren’t that great as it is, with three road games among the last four matches of the regular season. The Fire is a dismal 2-8-4 on the road this season.
It’s hard to imagine the Fire (11-12-7) taking any opponent lightly at this stage of the campaign. Last week’s 2-2 home draw with Montreal contributed to the Fire dropping to eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Only five teams qualify for the playoffs, but the Fire isn’t out of it yet.
A win on Friday would vault the Fire into the No. 5 spot, one-point behind fourth-place Houston which also plays that night – a home match vs. Montreal.
As has been the case for the last six weeks, every match is critical in the playoff race with five teams in contention for the final two spots.
Houston is in the best position. The No. 4 Dynamo has 44 points in 30 matches and will host Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday after welcoming the Impact.
No. 5 Philadelphia, with 42 points in 30 matches, hosts lowly Toronto FC on Saturday. No. 6 Columbus has a home match with SKC on that day but has played one more match than its rivals. The Crew has 41 points in 31 outings but has been playing great lately. No. 7 New England also has 41 points, but in 30 starts. The Revolution visits New York on Saturday.
And then there’s the Fire with its 40 points in 30 matches coming off costly late-game letdowns in three of its September matches and an uninviting schedule the rest of the way. The Fire will visit FC Dallas minus two key players on Oct. 12 and visit Supporters Shield leader New York in the season finale on Oct. 27. In between is what could be the last home match of 2013 – against Toronto FC on Oct. 19.
D.C. United, at any rate, can’t ever be taken lightly by the Fire. Their rivalry over the years is one of the best in MLS, each club standing 17-17-11 against the other. In winning the 100th U.S. Open Cup, D.C. United claimed its 13th domestic or international trophy in 18 seasons – the most of any MLS team. Given that perspective, this season’s MLS record doesn’t reflect the quality of the franchise.
"You have to assume they’re going to be confident after winning the biggest game of the year," said Fire mainstay Jeff Larentowicz. "They have that taste for winning and feel good again."
There’s some sidelights to the match worth noting. The Fire’s Mike Magee, with 18 goals, is one behind Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio in the battle for MLS’ Golden Boot. Midfielder John Thorrington, a spark plug in the Open Cup title match on Tuesday, endured an injury-plagued stint with the Fire before being claimed in an expansion draft. Fire defender Austin Berry and United defender Nick DeLeon were college teammates at Louisville in 2010 and 2011 and one-two in the MLS Rookie-of-the-Year balloting last season. United assistant coach Josh Wolff was a Fire stalwart in the first five years of the franchise.
Of only minor importance now, the Fire claimed striker Maicon Santos from D.C. United in the last MLS re-entry draft. Santos was the only player taken in Stage One of that selection process, but won’t likely impact Friday’s match. He has usually been left off the 18-man game day roster since the arrival of Magee and Ecuadoran striker Juan Luis Anangano and the improvement of Quincy Amarikwa.
It won’t be a factor on Friday, but the Fire must plan ahead for its next game without midfielders Arevalo Rios and Joel Lindpere. They were called up for more national team duty on Thursday and will leave the Fire after Friday’s match.
Rios will join Uruguay for critical World Cup qualifiers on Oct. 11 at Ecuador and Oct. 14 against Argentina in Montevideo. Uruguay and Ecuador are tied in points for fifth place in their group qualifying competition. Four teams will go to the World Cup finals and a fifth will face a playoff with an Asian nation for the right to play on soccer’s biggest stage.
Lindpere’s Estonia team has been eliminated as far as making it to the World Cup finals but it still has two matches coming up in qualifying – Oct. 11 vs. Turkey in Tallinn, Estonia, and Oct. 14 against Romania in Bucharest.
Rios and Lindpere will miss the Fire’s match at FC Dallas but figure to be available for the final two matches of the MLS regular season.