It’s possible that the Fire can clinch a playoff berth in Saturday’s last regular season home match against Toronto FC – but don’t count on it. In what has been the strangest season in the franchise’s 16-year history, the one thing you can expect is the unexpected.
To assure a return to postseason play the Fire (13-12-7) needs to beat Toronto (5-16-11) and get a little help. The Montreal Impact has to beat the Philadelphia Union in Canada and the New England Revolution must tie or lose in its home game against the Columbus Crew for the Fire to earn a postseason berth on Saturday. Otherwise, the battle goes down to the last week of the campaign.
Beating Toronto doesn’t seem like a difficult task. TFC hasn’t played in two weeks, is operating on a three-game losing streak, has never won at Toyota Park, hasn’t beaten the Fire in over three years and will be without the only goalkeeper it’s used in Major League Soccer matches this season.
Joseph Bendik drew a red card in the last match – a 1-0 loss to Philadelphia – so Stefan Frei will get the start in goal. Bendik had started all 32 MLS matches for TFC, and Frei got the bulk of his action in two Canada Cup matches.
But, the Fire had a chance to secure playoff points against TFC on Sept. 11 and could only manage a 1-1 draw in Toronto. That was one in a series of blown opportunities for the Fire in a frustrating month of September.
October has been different, however. After winning just two of its first 14 road matches the Fire traveled to D.C. United and took a 2-0 win on Oct. 4 and followed up with a 3-2 victory at FC Dallas last Saturday.
All that bodes well for the Fire doing its part to earn a playoff berth this Saturday in its only home match during the final month of the regular season. The Eastern Conference standings, though, don’t paint such a rosy picture regarding the other scenarios necessary to make that happen.
The Fire is in fifth place with 46 points in 32 matches. That sounds good, especially given the dismal 2-7-1 start to the season, but fourth-place Montreal and sixth-place Philadelphia also have 46 points in 32 starts and New England has 45 in 32. Five make the playoffs, so all are very much in the mix with two games left.
If the Fire falters this weekend earning the postseason berth in the season finale won’t be so easy. The club goes on the road to face the New York Red Bulls on Oct. 27. New York leads the Eastern Conference and is trying to protect a one-point lead over second place Sporting Kansas City. There’s no chance the Red Bulls will be looking ahead to postseason play when the Fire comes to town.
Fire coach Frank Klopas has some difficult lineup decisions to make. While no players are listed on this week’s injury report, Dilly Duka left the FC Dallas match early with an ankle injury and Patrick Nyarko departed with a hamstring problem. Are they healthy enough to play in Saturday’s big match?
Then there’s the return of Arevalo Rios and Joel Lindpere from national team duty. They missed the last two Fire matches and rejoined the team on Thursday. Rios, especially, had been a mainstay in the defensive midfield, but the Fire exploded without him in Dallas with Jeff Larentowicz partnering with Alex in the central midfield. The Fire built up a 3-0 lead before hanging on for that big win. Should Klopas break up a combination that worked so well with the pressure on?
Of very much secondary importance now, but of interest nonetheless, is the battle for the MLS Golden Boot. The Fire’s Mike Magee and Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio are tied for the lead with 19 goals. The Fire has never had a Golden Boot winner. Di Vaio, a 35-year old Italian striker, was given a one-year contract extension by the Impact this week as a reward for the great season’s he’s had. Their battle will come down to the last game of the season, but Magee is clearly focused on just the playoff race.
"For the last two months we’ve been hovering right around that red line (in or out of the playoffs)," he said. "The big issue for us was getting over that hump. Now we’ve put ourselves in position, with two matches left in the regular season, that we control our own destiny."