Two points out of the playoffs with three matches to go.
That says it all for the Fire heading into Saturday’s road match against FC Dallas. It’ll be a meeting of two .500 clubs with highly different prospects for the remainder of the season.
FC Dallas (10-10-11) is buried in eighth place in the nine-team Western Conference of Major League Soccer, a full seven points behind the Colorado Rapids, holders of the fifth and last playoff spot.
The Fire (12-12-7) is in sixth place in the 10-team Eastern Conference, two points behind the fifth place Philadelphia Union. The Union has to play on the road, but against a weak team. D.C. United, a 3-0 loser at home to the Fire last Friday, is the worst team in MLS despite winning this year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
More teams are involved in the playoff fight besides the Union and Fire, however. With 43 points in 31 matches, the Fire is within striking distance of not just the Union but also No. 4 Montreal, which has 46 points in 30 games.
[More: Fire keep playoff hopes alive]
Hardly out of it are the No. 7 New England Revolution, with 42 points in 31 matches, and the No. 8 Columbus Crew, with 41 in 32 matches. The Crew doesn’t play again until Oct. 19, but its final two matches could have a big impact on who makes the playoffs. Both are against New England. The Revs host on Oct. 19 and the Crew is at home in their Oct. 27 meeting.
All these matches between MLS’ bubble teams are more important than Friday’s meeting of the U.S. national team and Jamaica in Kansas City, Mo., in World Cup qualifying. The U.S. is already through to next year’s World Cup finals, so the Jamaica match is of little importance and a good reason for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to not call up Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson as his third goalkeeper. Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando will train with the national team, but Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are entrenched as the top two U.S. netminders.
Johnson wouldn’t have played for the U.S., even if he had been called up, and the Fire badly needs him. He was brilliant in the win at D.C. United, making nine saves. The Fire wouldn’t have survived that critical match without him.
The Fire will be without two players because of national team duty at FC Dallas, however. Midfielder Arevalo Rios will be with Uruguay and midfielder Joel Lindpere with Estonia. Rios’ national team is in a battle with Ecuador in its World Cup group qualifying competition, and neither he nor Lindpere will rejoin the Fire until after Tuesday’s round of matches.
Rios and Lindpere will be available for the Fire’s last regular season home match, against Toronto FC on Oct.19, and the last match of the campaign, a road match against the New York Red Bulls on Oct. 27. Whether they have matches for the Fire after that remains to be seen.
Each week for the last two months has brought a shuffling of the standings as far as postseason position goes. Last week the Fire moved from eighth to fifth on Friday with a 3-0 win over D.C. United. After Saturday’s matches, however, the Fire dropped back to sixth because Philadelphia took a 1-0 win over Toronto FC.
This week the other big match among the East’s playoff bubble teams is New England at Montreal on Saturday.
As for the Fire-FC Dallas meeting, this matchup used to be somewhat of a big deal on its own. The teams play each year for the Brimstone Cup. It goes to the club with the best record in regular season matches, with non-league matchups used as tiebreakers. The trophy was created when FC Dallas was called the Dallas Burn. Fire vs. Burn, get it?
Anyway, the name game doesn’t fit now. The Fire owns the Brimstone Cup on the basis of its 2-1 win at Toyota Park on May 23 of last season. But FC Dallas had possession of the Cup nine of the 10 years before that. Saturday’s match is the only meeting between the teams this season (unless they somehow collide in the MLS Cup final – a highly unlikely possibility). So, Saturday’s match will most likely decide the Brimstone Cup winner for 2013.
One interesting sidelight on the FC Dallas side: Goalkeeper Raul Fernandez made an unusual decision to stay with his MLS club for its last three matches of the regular season. In so doing, he opted to bypass a callup from Peru’s national team for its two World Cup qualifiers.
The Fire hasn’t played well against whatever the Dallas club is called. Overall the Texans have a 12-20-4 advantage in the lifetime series and the Fire is a sad 3-12-2 when the teams meet in the Lone Star state.