The strangest season in the Fire’s 16-year history was bound to come down to this.
A 2-7-1 start and a series of blown opportunities in September have the Fire in a precarious position going into the last weekend of Major League Soccer’s regular season. The Fire could finish as high as third in the Eastern Conference – which would be higher than the club has been all season – or the Fire could miss postseason play altogether. It all depends on what happens in next weekend’s round of matches.
Saturday’s shaky 1-0 win over Toronto FC at Toyota Park boosted the Fire into fourth place, with the top five at season’s end qualifying for postseason play. But, New England’s 3-2 home win over Columbus on Saturday night kept the Fire from clinching a playoff berth.
Now it’ll all come down to five bubble teams fighting for three postseason spots. Only three points separated those teams after Saturday’s battling.
To be assured a playoff spot last weekend the Fire had to win its match, Montreal had to defeat Philadelphia and Columbus had to win or tie vs. New England. The Impact did its part, beating the Union 2-1, and the Fire did some scoreboard watching while its game was in progress. New England posted its win before the Fire match was over.
So, if the season was over now, the three bubble teams that would survive would be Montreal, the Fire and the Revolution. Houston, which has a Sunday home match against the New York Red Bulls, and the Union would be out.
The season isn’t over, however, so here’s the scenario for the rest of the campaign. Houston has the toughest road. The Dynamo, an MLS Cup finalist the last two seasons, hosts New York on Sunday, travels to Panama for a CONCACAF Champions League match against Arabe Unido on Thursday and then visits D.C. United next Sunday – the final day of the regular season.
Montreal, in third place now with a tiebreaker edge on the Fire, visits Toronto on Saturday. Philadelphia also plays on Saturday, hosting Sporting Kansas City. The Union would be eliminated with a loss or tie and a Montreal loss could set the Fire up for a climb into third. New England has a rematch with Columbus on Sunday, but this time on the Crew’s home turf, and the Fire visits New York.
In summary, Montreal and the Fire have 49 points in 33 matches. New England has 48. Houston is at 48, but in 32 outings (Sunday’s not included) and Philadelphia has 46 in 33 matches.
Fire coach Frank Klopas wasn’t disappointed about not clinching a playoff spot in his team’s last regular season home match.
"We focused on putting ourselves in a great spot,’’ he said. "The team stuck together and all these games, even adversity in the beginning, has made us a better team. You get through difficult moments. This team right now is better in that sense than the team I had last year.’’
That one won 17 games, got into the playoffs after a two-year absence and lost the Knockout Round game to Houston in Bridgeview.
This year’s Fire (14-12-7) isn’t as good as last year’s record-wise but is playing well in October. The third and fourth road wins came in that stretch prior to the tense victory over Toronto before 19,889 in the home finale.
Beating Toronto (5-17-11) is normally no great accomplishment, but getting the win with the pressure on was critical. It materialized on a Mike Magee penalty kick in the 64th minute. Magee’s 25-yard free kick glanced off the arm of Toronto’s Jonathan Osorio, setting the stage for the PK.
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Magee scored his 20th goal of the season (14 since the Fire acquired him from Los Angeles) and moved back into a tie with Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio for the lead in MLS’ Golden Boot race. Their individual battle will also go down to the last weekend, and Vancouver’s Camilo Sanvezzo is just one goal behind the co-leaders. All three scored goals on Saturday. The Fire has never had a Golden Boot winner.
The Fire got Arevalo Rios and Joel Lindpere back from national team duty for Toronto’s visit, but Lindpere didn’t get in the match and Rios was pulled in favor of the more offensive-minded Alex in the 60th minute. Rios and Lindpere loom more important for the New York match because veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz will be sitting out a one-game suspension. He protested the yellow card he was handed in the 57th minute, which pushed him over the limit, but to no avail.
The last regular season home game coincided with Breast Cancer Awareness night and the Fire dressed out in pink socks with pink numerals on the jerseys. The club also announced that Magee had been voted the season’s Most Valuable Player and goalkeeper Sean Johnson the Best Defender. Both were obvious choices, given the contributions they made throughout the campaign.