Blog

Between the Lines

15 April 8:05 am

It’s part of the magic of footy mythology that even with 22 players on the field, every game seems to center around the actions of a few trolls or the one great Prince. The other 20 or so characters stay in the background. But what makes the mythology live and move through time is that inevitably the seemingly inconsequential side characters develop their own story.

In Chicago, right now, that story is Quincy Amarikwa. For five years, his role in the fight scene was as a spear-holding extra, stabbing at people now and then as the camera panned by overhead. But now, the guy is hot. He’s wearing face paint and screaming at people from his horse. I mean he’s not only, finally, getting a run of starts, but he’s already matched his top goals number in April. He’s got not one but two hashtags of his own, he’s running an internet marketing consultant business, he’s teaching Sparky how to do laundry, and he’s even risen to Fantasy fame.

After another goal in the Battle of the Franks in Montreal, people all over the league are taking notice. Not that Amarikwa is hiding. That’s not his style. Saturday’s matchup against former manager Frank Klopas brought a lot of cute nostalgic quotes, but Amarikwa was the only one who cut through the platitudes, saying, “Obviously it was nice to show him why I should have played more last year.”

It’s something that Amarikwa is used to, this approach of proving yourself. In a recent interview, he explained his approach as a substitute: You got five minutes to prove it, so prove it. Maybe that’s why his substitute appearances were always marked by an almost impossible level of energy, physicality, hustle, and pace. He might only have five minutes, but he would bust those five minutes apart.

You can see as much in highlights from his past appearances. Turning guys, taking people on, ripping shots - no matter who the great Prince was in a particular game, Amarikwa demanded your attention. He was jumping in front of the camera, demanding his own scene. In San Jose, Colorado, and Toronto, fans loved the guy because he scared opponents - he’s direct, pesky, tireless, sharp elbowed, and jacked. In his long haired days he looked like a Samoan rugby player. With his low center of gravity, giant thighs, and changes of direction, he now resembles an NFL fullback.

The problem was goals. Amarikwa was never a prolific scorer. Scoring 4 goals in 5 seasons as a striker isn’t enough to get yourself a starting job.

And so, for five years, his MLS job description read something like this: “Impact substitute, sparkplug; i.e. ability to change game and create chances - not necessarily the one to take those chances.”

That is, until last year, when Amarikwa was already on his way to dropping the spear and grabbing his own horse. The two bikes against Montreal (HE BIKES WHEN HE WANTS) may have been overshadowed by the excruciating miss in Toronto in September, but he continued to impress. His scoring rate per 90 minutes shot upwards.

Instead of contributing intangibles, he was contributing goals. The flying side volley against RSL helped turn the Fire’s season around, and looking back now, it feels like an apt little analogy for his career so far. Because at first glance you watch it and you say, ok, a nice athletic goal late in a game, those are important. Good work. But then you watch the replay and you realize just how quick, how airborne, how technical the finish was. And you say to yourself, wait a minute, wow, that’s a real goal scorer’s goal.

This year, Amarikwa has started the season with three goals and an assist in five starts. He’s the hottest player in the squad. And with manager Frank Yallop rewarding players’ good form with minutes, Amarikwa is currently keeping DP Juan Luis Anangono on the bench.

It looks like Amarikwa found the efficacy he was lacking. He’s transformed his old five minute blitz - all fight, opportunism, and “eff you” - into a 90 minute attack. It’s the step we all wanted, and his mouthwatering partnership with Mike Magee is only just beginning.

What it means is that now, suddenly, the former side character Amarikwa isn’t only creeping into the Prince’s stories. He’s developing a myth of his own. 

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.

01 April 12:36 pm

Outside a bar at halftime, one team was up a man and four goals. The crowd outside was split, not between teams but between ideals. Who would go back to watch the second half? It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon at the beginning of spring and a few of us wanted to go sit in a park. The game was all but over. But for some reason, everybody followed one guy back in, back to their seats at the bar. “It’s part of the contract,” he said. “It’s what we do.”

What contract? It’s the contract we sign as fans. The contract to watch and be a part of the sport in America. But what responsibility do we have to the game? What do we owe it? Are we ever allowed our Saturday afternoons?

My annual fan contracts have evolved over the years with regards to the Fire and the sport of soccer in general. Whereas I used to sign up for the atmosphere, or the results themselves, now I sign for the athletics, the ideas, and the story of the competition. Sometimes, I even take my Saturday afternoons soccer-free.

I don’t have to sing or cry anymore. I salute those fans, those who sign the emotional fan contract. They’re stronger than I. They’re the ones singing at Toyota Park against Red Bulls in the cold. They’re the ones proving the word fan comes from fanatic. They’re the ones spending hours upon hours on tifo or travelling all over the country, dealing with airports and buses and Kansas City. Those fans carry the club. They’re as much a part of the team as the players.

But then, I’m not one of them. I’m a different kind of fan. I’m a supporter, in the true sense of that word. I want the team to do well and I want to support it towards its goals. My contract with the team is to be a part of that progression.

Nowadays, that supporter contracts costs me two things: my money and my time. I pay to watch the games and I give my time to watch and read about my team.

But as a supporter, I can’t stand the occasional debates about who the “real” fans are. They’re tiresome. The truth is that it’s simply difficult in MLS to figure out the “right” way to support your team. Young, and comprised of mostly young organizations, it’s a unique league in the world of soccer. Doesn’t it come with a different kind of contract for us to sign now as fans, supporters, consumers, and participants?

In MLS, there is for us American soccer fans the first chance in a generation to support our local team. Our team in our city. Our contract with the league and our team in the league is about something bigger. It’s about the idea of growing something that is ours.

Our participation, now, is the basis of American soccer.

It’s in that umbrella of growth, that fungal tarpaulin, under which we all stand together. Hipster craft beer MLS fans, soccer moms, whatever. We all struggle with our responsibility, caught between fandom and supporterdom, between Saturday afternoons and the bar - but that’s ok. That’s part of the uniqueness of our American soccer contract. We get to carve out our own relationships with the team and the league. Like a cartoon rumble, we define it as it defines us, and we roll together down the hill.

Some of us will go to the stadium once a year for the tailgate while others go every week out of unshakeable loyalty to the badge; some of us will go to see a new tactical development while others want to see a guy they played against in high school - the point is that we’re all there. Supporters and fans, side by side.

In the end all the arguments about MLS fans are pointless because there is only one way to watch the game. It’s the way that makes you want to watch, follow, and maybe buy a shirt or a ticket. That’s the way we build this thing - so go and find your way.

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.

19 March 11:47 am

One took over the defending continental champions. Despite his 15 trophies as a manager, there were questions about how much better he could make them. Two-thirds through the season, he’s taken the champions to a new level of excellence.

Another replaced a legend in taking over the league champs. His experience and consistency made him a safe choice, but how would he lead the club into a new generation? Today the team sits seven places out of first.

The third assumed leadership of a historically successful club dealing with a few tough years. Fans wondered what would come next as contracts turned over and a new crop of youngsters presented themselves. With five coaching trophies, he’s highly knowledgeable with regards to the competition and what works in the league, but fans eagerly wait to see how he’ll plot the path forwards.

Which of the above new coaches came to the Fire? If you separated Frank Yallop from Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and David Moyes at Manchester United, good for you.

Coaching changes are so commonplace that they’re not in and of themselves particularly remarkable. In the Barclay’s Premier League so far in the 2013-2014 season, already five managers have been fired; that’s on top of the six managers who left clubs before the season already started. That means more than half the teams changed managers this year.

And in general with sports, personnel changeover is as much a part of the grind as winning and losing. It’s as much if not more common in the current adolescent stage of MLS, where parity dominates, new teams are forthcoming, and personnel rules and financial regulation necessitate almost constant player movement.

But what do the changes mean for the Fire?

This year is a new beginning. Even though the ownership and front office maintain a steadfast commitment to the club’s history and traditions, the technical staff was overhauled leading into the 2014 season. MLS legend Frank Yallop replaced Fire legend Frank Klopas. He brought C.J. Brown, another Fire legend, along with, and added assistant coach Clint Mathis on top.

And the change touched the players as well. Some consistent starters from seasons past, like Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba, are gone. Led by Harry Shipp and Benji Joya, a new crop of youngsters are fighting veterans for their places. Meanwhile, except for Sean Johnson in goal, Jeff Larentowicz in the middle, and the reigning MVP Mike Magee (whenever he’s back fit) up top, every place in the side is up for grabs.

Things change, okay, but this is now a totally different Fire team than the one we’ve seen the past few years. New players and new management means a new culture, new approaches both on and off the field. A 4-1-4-1 formation is in the works. But the gutsy 10-man point in Portland and loss at Chivas showed that old habits take time to correct.
 
Even though the Fire were frustrated to miss the playoffs a few times in recent years, they have the league MVP and enough player talent on paper to threaten the top teams in MLS. Yet by overhauling the technical staff, the Fire signaled a loftier statement: Being mediocre is not good enough, no matter how much successful history the club has.

Without going into huge detail about the strategic plans, the Fire players have said that this preseason felt different, that Yallop was fostering a different environment than Klopas’s. 

It’s important because whether we like it or not, this season will be defined by the changes the Fire made this offseason. Change is here.

The questions though: How much do you change, and how much do you keep? What is actually new? How exactly do you convey and impose a plan without sacrificing whatever was working before? What effect can a plan even have if there are many unpredictable and external issues?

It doesn’t look like Yallop is going to blow everyone away with some avant garde tactical system. Although the lineups have changed, in the first two games we saw tactical variations of familiar set ups, even if the advertised 4-1-4-1 was never totally deployed. We saw a cautious balance between MLS veterans and excited young guns.

In the media, we’ve seen a focus on working hard and coming together as a team - like the tactics and team selection, it’s a communications strategy that isn’t going to draw too much attention.

But don’t let the low key approach fool you. Yallop’s project with the Fire is massive. Whether he ends up tearing through the league like Guardiola, or taking a few steps back, like Moyes, certainly Yallop’s plan must be taken seriously for the long term. Change might be part of the game, but plans in this game only work when they’re given time to come to.

28 October 3:29 pm
Wait. What just happened? The Fire were up 1-0 with just over one hour left in their season. The first 25 minutes were insanely fast, yes, but the Fire were creating chances and were up a goal. Dilly Duka in particular looked menacing, and Mike Magee had got his 21st to lead the league in goals! The Fire only needed a draw and there was one hour left!
 
Then Anangono lost the ball at the NYRB box. They made one, two passes and boom. This ridiculous goal from Thierry Henry sent the Fire reeling.
 
 
What can you do? Henry didn’t even see the ball coming until it was basically on his chest. His volley was so powerful it was in the net before Sean Johnson could move his feet.
 
Suddenly the Red Bulls had not only recovered, they were growing, and the first half turned into one of the best the MLS had this year. Top quality superstars playing like it. MLS playoffs, Supporters’ Shield, and Golden Boot on the line. Red Bull Arena was the loudest it’s ever been. Things got hectic. The players were all over the field like a game of Benzedrine capture the flag. Johnson saved from Peguy Luyindola. Duka hit the side netting. Tackles were coming in from everywhere, and the only time to breathe came at the whistle for halftime.
 
So it was 1-1 and the Fire were still in the playoffs. A draw was all they needed. But we know what happened next. NYRB came out of halftime like a pack of wild dogs. They overran the Fire, starting with their hyena pack second goal, then their third, and so on and so on until five-two. Five-two - a result we’ll all remember.
 
But what happened?! How can NYRB have just three more wins than the Fire and be the best team of the regular season while the Fire are done? Whither the knife’s edge?!
 
After some time to digest, you could say the Fire just ran up against a team that simply wasn’t going to be beaten - or tied - on Sunday. NYRB was a hot team that hadn’t lost since August 25, playing in front of the best crowd most of them had ever seen at home, with a long tortured fan base poised to lift the organization’s first ever trophy. Their superstars (Henry, Tim Cahill) were inspired, the team was clicking all fall, and nobody was beating them that night.
 
So then we can ask how the Fire ended up having to play the best team in MLS with the season on the line, but we know that story. We know about the crazy ride that was the 2013 Chicago Fire. 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, etc. The pre-Magee era, the hot June, the U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss, the Anangono-Rios era, the late burst into playoff contention. Despite it all, they needed just one more point. It’s easy to look for it in games like the draw in Toronto, the blown lead against Montreal, gut punch games against Houston and Philly. The points don’t lie.
 
No, what we saw on Sunday night was what we’ve seen in parts all year. We saw a first half with some of the most entertaining footy you’ll see, and then the second half was so brutal that, to paraphrase Richard Jeni, you’d rather give birth to a porcupine that is on fire than watch it again.
 
But it wasn’t totally unexpected. That two-faced nature has been as much a part of the Fire as anything else this year. It’s just too bad it resurfaced when it did. Maybe Magee was hobbled from rolling his ankle early in the game. Maybe the Fire missed Jeff Larentowicz after accumulating too many yellows. Either way, this was the evil inconsistent side of the 2013 Fire. It’s the team that can make a 4-4-2 look like the most advanced formation around only to deteriorate into a side with little shape, leaving mismatches and wide open space all over the field.
 
After the two quick go ahead goals, NYRB was able to sit back and pick their spots. The Fire reverted to some ugly and desperate long balls that never quite came off and the second half raced to its depressing conclusion.
 
We have all fall and winter to think about what happened. How the Fire went, in 60 minutes, from one of the hottest teams heading into the playoffs to going home, season over. But personally I won’t only think about 5-2. I’ll think about Magee Face, Larentowicz Face, Duka’s megs, Chris Rolfe’s megs, all the megs!, Jalil Anibaba’s swing and miss in the wind against Philadelphia and his rocket against Dallas, Magee’s spike, the blue kit, the third kit, Joel Lindpere’s crosses, assistant coach Leo Percovich’s hair, the way Dan Kelly uses “class” as an adjective, the #cf97 moodswings, the drama, and the totally unpredictable energy that was the 2013 Chicago Fire.
21 October 12:22 pm

There were shots off the post, a disallowed goal, more Sean Johnson saves, the dramatic contexts of playoff contention and the last regular season home game of the season - Saturday’s win had a handful of talking points, but it had really only one truly interesting scene: Mike Magee’s game winning penalty.

Because despite the atmosphere and everything that was at stake, the game, in fact was pretty flat. Maybe it was the rain-soaked field, maybe it was a bit of nerves but Fire fans had to be uncomfortable when they saw the first 10 minutes with little of the urgency, high pressure, and high defensive line that pushed the team to those two huge away wins in D.C. and Dallas. Toronto was finding gaps all over the field to exploit and if it wasn’t for such bad finishing by Robert Earnshaw, they would’ve been in front.

The Fire grew into the game, however, and were in control when Magee scored the winning penalty. Then, as we’ve seen for the past month or so, the Fire managed the remainder of the and took all the points.

So maybe it’s good that it wasn’t a spectacle of high drama. Maybe it was just a professional victory -- a cold blooded three point snatch.

But then there was Magee’s PK.

Just a few weeks ago, Magee hit the crossbar with what would’ve been a game winning PK against Montreal. It cost the Fire two crucial points. “Tonight's on me,” he said after the game. “It won't be the last one I miss but I'm confident taking them and I'll bury the next one.”

It’s more or less the approach you expect from someone leading the league in goals and there aren’t many better opportunities to pad your stats than from the penalty spot.

And yet, and YET, Saturday’s PK was terrifying. I didn’t like the way Magee looked, I didn’t like his set up. He kept wiping his hands, and he started his run-up exactly at the whistle. You can often tell if a player’s going to score their PK based on their face, their calm, their approach, and their cool. We all know Magee is cool in front of goal, but wouldn’t the Montreal miss be on his mind? There he was, right in front of Section 8, back in his home city, a stadium chanting MVP - it was a moment, just a second or two, where some people might have thought about the whole chaos of the season. All the missed chances, all the posts they hit, all the points they dropped, all the mistakes and antagonism and pressure.

It happened so fast. Magee didn’t let the moment fester. He knew what he was going to do. He knows where the goal is. He wipes his hands, he tugs his shorts down a bit, he looks at the ref waiting for the whistle. When it comes he leaps off the line like a 5k start, skips a bit to the left of the ball, and approaching it that way, executes the deftest of chips right into where the goalie’s chest would’ve been if he hadn’t dove down to his right, where he thought Magee would go.

What I love about the way he took it is that he seemed to beat the rhythm of the game. I wanted a dramatic pause. I wanted to consider the entire season in the moment, and I wanted him to look straight at the keeper with fire in his eyes, like Rivaldo in 2002. But then, that’s what makes him such a good finisher, isn’t it? It’s the way he seems to catch defenders and goalies unaware. For some goals he’s quicker than you think he can be, and for others he seems to wait an eternity before calmly putting it away. The PK on Saturday was a combination of both. It had the quickness to take a few people by surprise (and short circuit any nerves), and the calmness to chip a Pirlo-esque panenka in front of thousands of people, in the most important game of the season.

After the game, Magee admitted he had some nervousness: “Normally I get up there and don't think twice about missing, and this time the last one off the back of the post was on my mind, so I figured I couldn't hit it off the post if I shot it up the middle.”

Even when admitting nerves, he sounds like the doubt in his mind didn’t really make him fear not scoring, it just pushed him to score differently.

And so now the Fire go to New York with nerves and doubts, but like Magee, they’ll have to use those doubts to push forward. They’ve learned from their mistakes against Montreal (and Columbus, and etc. etc.) but for three games in a row they’ve managed games and have a chance to finish the season the way Magee finished his PK: maybe a little afraid of the posts, maybe not exactly with the suave calmness of a secure playoff spot, but with a chance to kill it off, take the points, and head into the playoffs.

15 October 12:06 pm

The Fire won back-to-back away games and scored six goals. They sit in a playoff position and control their own fate with two games remaining. Juan Luis Anangono is heating up. Mike Magee is so hot he’s scoring goals by accident. Sean Johnson is playing like, and being recognized as, one of the four or five best American goalies. Jeff Larentowicz is owning midfields. Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry are two of only three MLS players who’ve played every single minute so far this season and their defensive relationship is finally solidifying. There’s real depth on the outside and through the middle (where captain Logan Pause and summer standout Daniel Paladini are working to get past Alex and Arevalo Rios).

That’s the general view right now. The squad is playing up to their potential and the depth is supporting them. The competition for spots is pushing everyone harder, and the depth is allowing Frank Klopas to cover for injuries, international duty (Rios, Lindpere), or to go with the hotter player (Anangono over Chris Rolfe).

In other words, things are shaping up nicely. The general feeling is a good one, momentum is building, the Twitter trolls have returned to their caves, and it’s hard to fend off enticing thoughts like, you know those lower-seeded teams that barrel into the playoffs and scare everyone because they’re playing with momentum and confidence? What if the Fire can be that team?

All season long, the Fire’s major problem was consistency. They were infuriatingly inconsistent from game to game and, indeed, from half to half. Maybe it was a focus thing, maybe it was a changing personnel thing, who knows. But now the Fire are managing games better. They’re attacking straight from the beginning. They’re pressuring the ball all over the field. They’re getting crucial two-goal advantages and defending well enough to hold on to them.

We saw all that last week in D.C., where a super high defensive line pushed the Fire team way up the field to pressure United players into mistakes that led to chances and goals. We saw the same thing in Dallas on Saturday night. Alex, especially, was way up the field in the first half, never letting the Dallas players play the ball comfortable in their own half. (Magee, Anangono, Patrick Nyarko, and Dilly Duka deserve credit too.) How many shots did the Fire have at the top of the Dallas box in the first 30 minutes? It was harassment.

So just like in DC, a high defensive line and concentrated pressure led to a 2-0 first half lead. But just like in DC, we saw where it could be dangerous. We saw the team pay the price of so much early pressure, with Nyarko tweaking a hamstring and the rest of the team almost running out of gas late in the second half. We also saw how pushing too eagerly can be scary:

But I like this high pressure because it fits the moment, with the Fire desperately needing these results to make the playoffs. There are just two games left and the Fire have to prove their potentially newfound consistency beyond the past two away wins. They have to show the urgency and the commitment and the work rate into the next two games, too. Klopas's high risk and high pressure tactic fits. 

It's a great moment: After all the work and all the struggle, suddenly the players’ quality shines through. Suddenly everybody trusts each other. Goals and points happen. Anibaba scores a stunner. Other teams hit the posts. 

I don't know about predicting anything against Toronto and New York. But if we keep seeing the Fire play as they have these past two games, they'll get to play a few more.

08 October 1:54 pm

 

The big stories of Friday night’s win at DC United have to be the Fire staying in the playoff hunt (now two points behind Philly for the East’s fifth and final spot) and Sean Johnson’s saves that helped procure an invaluable clean sheet. But a closer look finds a Fire team with an ignominious away record finally succeeding away from Toyota Park with the help of a new approach that could propel them into the playoffs: a high defensive line.
 
To get the qualifiers out of the way, yes, DCU was playing a little hungover after their incredible U.S. Open Cup win at Salt Lake on Tuesday night, and yes, they were playing some young guns. But these are professionals playing for their jobs and for their pride. With some better finishing they could have made this night super awkward.
But that said, the Fire managed to not only keep a clean sheet en route to a comfortable seeming 3-0 win, they did so with a super high defensive line. It had some hiccups but, like the Fire coaches have been clamoring for the past few weeks, they finally found themselves with an advantage of at least two goals. It gave them a little bit of emotional space to play in, a little bit of confidence, and those are the things that the Fire need to succeed away from home.
 
It’s important to acknowledge that the Fire’s three goals came for the most part against the run of play. DCU held a lot of possession, something the Fire are OK with, but they soaked up the pressure and hit DCU back efficiently, repeatedly, and without mercy, exactly what Frank Klopas envisioned for a tricky away game.
 
They did so by pushing Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry way up the field. Along with Jeff Larentowicz and Arevalo Rios scrambling in midfield, that scrunched the amount of space DCU’s midfielders had to play in. With less room to play, they were more likely to lose the ball gifted the Fire playmakers with chances here and there throughout the game. It was Patrick Nyarko stepping up in the sixth minute which led to Mike Magee’s shot that was saved by Joe Willis. The foul that led to the Fire’s second goal came after another giveaway gave the Fire possession in the 25th
 
With two more away games left, it’s enticing to think that this high line and high pressure approach is the Fire’s ticket to the playoffs, but we saw on Friday how the high line invites its own risks. Leaving so much space behind the defense means that balls between or around the defenders can pose serious threats to a backpedaling line. The best way to counter that is to constantly pressure the ball so that whoever’s on it never has the time to look up and find the pass behind the defenders. There was a 10 minute period after the Fire’s first two goals when DCU was creating chances and Klopas appeared on the bottom of the TV feed, screaming at his midfielders to apply more pressure on the ball.
 
 
It’s reassuring to see Klopas continually tweaking the tactics, even so late in the season, because we’ve seen that this team needs those sort of adjustments to continue gelling into this final phase. But considering his allegiance to the traditional 4-4-2, it’s also interesting to see Klopas take on the trendy defensive high line. It’s the high line that Pep Guardiola has rode at Barcelona and now Bayern Munich, and the Fire share with Guardiola’s teams the characteristic of being most dangerous on the counterattack, right after the high line wins the ball.
But with so much space behind the defenders, any mistake can be costly. A quick jaunt through tactics guru Michael Cox’s articles shows exactly how scary it can be. It’s a high risk sort of approach, one that requires the entire team defending as one unit, always pressuring the ball, always keeping neat straight lines in the back, and always having faith that your teammates are pressuring as hard as you are.
 
 
The Fire came out needing three points to stay in the playoff race and they managed to put a solid game together that was marked more by game management and efficiency than halftime adjustments and inconsistent focus. With just nine regular season points left to play for, it was refreshing, and much needed. The Fire will take those risks in the next three games. The only question is whether when Philly slip up, they can keep the focus and confidence and squeeze into the playoffs.

 

30 September 9:16 am

A quick word about points before some Juan Luis Anangono gifs from Saturday.

In all the European leagues this week, fans and onlookers, for the first time this season, started looking at the table in earnest. Suddenly those campaigns feel far enough along to warrant real despair or optimism. From highs at Napoli and Arsenal to the crises at United and Madrid, people spent the weekend frantically counting points, looking up past point totals, tracking average points per match stats, and worrying or gloating about their projected finishes.

That panic and fervor is why I don’t look at the table until at least halfway through a season. It’s too stressful and too small a dataset. But also, you can get a much better idea of a team’s title chances by watching them play a lot of games and watching other teams play a lot of games. Even though the table is king, there’s more to a game than its points.

I swear I’m coming back to the Fire but two quick things about points in general. First, they have a strange way of accumulating over time. You can only get zero, one, or three points, and yet they often feel like they’re coming or going in heaping clumps, like Salvation Army donations. They don’t feel like they grow calmly the way points per match stats indicate. (Anyway those stats are a little ridiculous. What do we really learn from a two-point-something line?) Points feel at once impossible to gain, then coming down in sheets.

But this is why the collection of points feels so good in soccer leagues all over the world, so much better than a regular season NBA win, to name the obvious example. You “steal a point” or “earn three points,” week in and week out. You figure a point saved is a point earned and the point savings account will pay off at the end of the season. You figure.

Points, despite their bewitching growth patterns, don’t lie when schedules are balanced and you know everyone’s playing everyone. At the end of the season the team with the most points is deservedly top. End of story. With the same points available over so long a time, it’s impossible to hide under a quick run of wins the way a team can in a playoff.

In MLS, it's a bit strange because most teams in the East play each other three times over the course of the season so qualifying for the playoffs will show who did the best against each other in the conference, not necessarily the best teams overall. Still, those teams deserve the chance to extend their season because they earned it from March to October. It's a huge dataset. No matter what happens between the Eastern Conference teams vying for the final playoff spots (Houston, Philadelphia, New England, and Chicago), I think that even with the imbalanced schedule, the points will have proven that over the long haul they were one of the top five teams.

Unless it’s the 2013 Fire. The 2013 Fire are doing their best to undermine the cold faultlessness of the point system, driving fans crazy with their fluctuating quality from half to half and game to game. Forget the table, at this point I’m convinced we won’t know if the Fire have made the playoffs until the final whistle of the final game in New York. They will continue to tease out points here and there until then. The others will slip, there’s nothing invincible about any of them, and the Fire either will or will not take advantage.

What I mean is that even though at this stage of the season it’s natural to whip out the calculators and do your Playoff Math and all that, it’s possible that even with just twelve points up for grabs, it’s still too early to talk conclusively about points. We should still be talking quality. If the Fire play the way they’ve shown they’re capable of, and as they did during parts of the second half on Saturday night, the points will come and they’ll make the playoffs. You don’t need a calculator to see that. Despite the despair of some fans and one player who called Saturday night’s game “heartbreaking,” I like Mike Magee’s comment: “We have four games left and we’re going to make the playoffs.”

Not a single one of the (what, eight or nine?) media and Twitter-hyped “MUST WIN” games have really been must-anythings so far. They’ve been opportunities to tweak and grow and get some points. The Fire now need points everywhere, but except perhaps for their ugly away record, the 12 points are actually quite feasible. DC will be coming off an emotional Cup Final, Dallas like the Fire has 40 points and all but out of the Western playoff race, Toronto is beatable, and NYRB may have clinched and have little to play for.

Of course, the Fire could also lose all four games. Who knows? The only sure thing is that there are twelve points for four teams to fight for, and the 2013 Fire has to earn it this year, conclusively, finally, or not. And that will be the measure of this team.

______

Saturday. I loved Frank Klopas’s adjustments at half. I loved the second half in general. But the first half was rough. In the first 15 seconds we have Juan Luis Anangono not quite focused yet:

Cut to the second half though, and Anangono, again symbolizing the entire team, was everywhere. He reacted quickly and had a point blank shot blocked before the ref whistled for that ill-fated PK. He was running at people (not always successfully, but still) and creating space for Chris Rolfe, Alex, and Magee to connect. But my favorite was in the 82nd minute: His super well-worked though unlucky chance that Rolfe created and Troy Perkins saved off the post. Anangono didn’t give up, he got the rebound and set up Magee, whose shot was cleared off the line:

More of that please, and with more of that we won’t even have to look at the table to know the Fire have extended their season.

23 September 9:54 am

We knew it was too early to get cocky. Although the Fire managed to overcome, at least in a cathartic sort of way, all the season’s travails in the dramatic comeback-into-playoff-spot win last week against New England, we knew there were six games left to hold onto, improve upon, or lose playoff position.

At that point, four of the six remaining games were away from Toyota Park, which was a scary prospect for the Fire. Like the rest of MLS, the Fire are much worse away from home, and one couldn’t shake the feeling that the Fire would play drug smuggler, in and out of safety every week.

Saturday’s thumping in Columbus didn’t make fans feel any better, and still, three of the five remaining games are away from Toyota Park. But why are the Fire playing worse away from home? A quick run through the stats:

- Overall record: 11-12-6
- Away record: 2-8-4
- Home record: 9-4-2
- Overall goal differential: -7 (36 for, 43 against)
- Away goal differential: -14 (10 for, 24 against)
- Home goal differential: 7 (26 for, 19 against)

Not sterling, it’s true. Goal differential in soccer can be a little overblown as a telling statistic but since it could count in playoff contention it's worth paying attention to. And one thing it shows is that all of MLS is struggling away from home this year. Every team except Kansas City (+1) and Real Salt Lake (0) have road goal differences in the negatives. Seventeen teams are shipping goals away from home!

It’s a strange phenomenon in MLS, and seems to go against the general feeling that, with MLS parity so prevalent, there would be less domination, more draws, etc. Not so, at least not anymore. According to some numbers crunched over at SBN, “MLS has become a league were the home team wins about 50 percent of the time and the road team pulls out three points somewhere around 25 percent.”

But why? There are a few explanations in other American leagues. Grueling travel in the NBA, noise in the NFL, explicit rule advantages in MLB and the NHL - but those factors aren’t so relevant in MLS.

There’s the harder to calculate factor of home vs. away referee decisions, or momentum, or what at least one writer calls the “best sports fans in America,” which, I mean, great, but even if there was a way to prove that, it would be hard to connect fans’ performance with players’.

So let’s accept the mystery for a second. Let’s chalk it up to some combination of discomfort or unfamiliarity with playing surfaces (hi Revs), climates (hola Houston), atmosphere (ok Seattle, we see you), various travel and hotel-related distractions and fatigue (seems like a cop out but ok), refereeing decisions (impossible to prove), and the elusive, metaphysical effects of momentum.

The thing is that MLS is not alone in home team dominance. England has it too. Maybe the issue has less to do with American this-or-that than soccer itself. I would love to find data showing that home team dominance comes from the non-physical aspects of the game. I think something about the invisible, spontaneous, and rapid morphic connections between teammates (the connections that translate into the action we see) make them occur in a smoother way at “home.”

At the very least, it's an apt way to think about the Fire’s away form this year, where even after a dominant home game they can leave town and look like they’ve never played with each other before. Saturday night in Columbus, for example, it seems they left whatever elixir Jeff Larentowicz passed around at half time back in the locker room at Toyota Park. But we’ve seen the Fire turn it the other way around too, as in July, when they lost 3-1 in Vancouver only to beat DC 4-1 at home the next week.

Obviously the Fire will be looking to do the same against the suddenly beatable Montreal at TP on Saturday. Here’s to the morphic energy going as smoothly as possible.

16 September 9:38 am

So now we have a different sort of perspective. Now suddenly the Fire are sitting in a playoff spot. Now the fight has paid off and the double comeback on Saturday night has everyone high and talking about “attitude” and “mentality” and there’s a different feel. Can you tell? Off-field issues, on field disappointments, coaching decisions, refereeing - it all feels a little irrelevant right now.

Now the approach is different. Now the Fire have in some way reached their goal, they’ve come back and got into a playoff spot. Now the team has a little momentum again, a little confidence, a little faith in this season’s various experiments.

Suddenly the Arevalo Rios/Jeff Larentowicz partnership looks as good as the Alex/Larentowicz partnership, while Alex has excelled as a utility attacker (center/left/right) off the bench or filling in for Rios on international duty.

Juan Luis Anangono finally finished and is beginning to look like a player you would spend transfer dollars on, while some healthy competition between Patrick Nyarko, Dilly Duka, and Joel Lindpere for outside midfield spots will only push them more and mean more service for Anangono.

Suddenly, the Fire look like a deep, experienced, full squad that can bring players like Chris Rolfe and Logan Pause off the bench if need be.

I just mean to say that the feeling after a dramatic and total team victory like Saturday’s is so much different from the panic, terror, and anger that fans felt on and off for most of the season. Toyota Park was more energized after Alex’s goal on Saturday than at any other time all year.

It feels like some fans and commentators have been calling games “must win” for the Fire since the spring, in a way that - deserved or not - everything felt like it was on the edge of a complete and utter disaster. That’s sports, especially in Chicago, but now that a goal’s been reached, there’s a feeling that you could almost call pride, back again.

So forgive us, playoff gods, for looking to the calendar because, as Mike Magee said Larentowicz told the team down 2-1 at halftime on Saturday, “the season gets shorter and shorter now and business has to be done.”

How will the team deal with being in 5th place looking down, instead of the other way around?

The Fire still have to improve on their away form if they’re going to hold their position despite tricky trips to Columbus, RFK, and Dallas, before finishing the season at first place New York. And the Fire still have to take the seemingly easier points against Toronto and DC. But it’s just six games and they hold their own destiny.

We know the playoff spot is the Fire’s to lose, and the fans can sense that this team, with its three different phases this year, and its hot streaks and cold streaks and other hot streaks and other cold streaks - this team might just have found enough consistency to not only make the playoffs but, well, if it was too early to panic about making the playoffs, it’s probably too early for the overly optimistic thoughts too, right?

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.