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08 October 2:28 pm

When the Chicago History Museum reached out to the Fire to take part in an even commemorating the "Great Chicago Fire" of 1871 Tuesday, I thought it was a great idea.

Even better was when I was asked to join Fire midfielder Brendan King (who is currently on the mend with a hamstring injury) to take part and tell why October 8 is not only significant to the city of Chicago but also to our club.

So there I was, notes prepared to discuss the events of 1871 and 1997 with the assembled group of third and fourth graders. Brendan, the professional soccer player, was there to field the tougher questions about you know being a professional soccer player but not before this fantastic photo-op with Mrs. O'Leary's Cow...

Joined by a representative from the Chicago Fire Department, we stepped to the stage in front of the mass of elementary school children and the first question went to us...

Was it about the history of the Fire? 

No. Rather it was, "How many games have you won this year?"

Both Brendan and I couldn't get the words out fast enough to say, "We've won 12 so far and we just beat D.C. United 3-0 on Friday!"

A loud applause emanated from the crowd! 

But then something happened. Husky looking men dressed in black and yellow regalia strolled up the aisle way. Were they members of the Columbus Crew coming to crash the party?

A closer look saw them carrying axes and other tools... Ah shoot, they must be actual firemen...

These guys were dressed in their full uniform and you could tell they've carried a room before... I leaned to Brendan and said, "I wonder if we get another question this entire panel?" 

After about 26 questions relating to smoke inhalation and whether you should run or crawl out of a fire, Sparky, who was late arriving to one of two Sweet 16 parties for himself today, finally showed up and regained the room for the club! Way to go Sparky!

With some attention back on the club, Brendan and I finally received the question we'd been waiting for from an astute child in the front row: "Why do you call yourselves the Fire?"

Let's just say we hit it out of the park, mesmerizing the gathered youths with the story of our launch on this day 16 years ago at Navy Pier and telling them how our club tied itself to the city's history from day one. 

Of course, young children have short attention spans so we got asked the question a few more times but it was all to drive the message of the Fire's tie to the city of Chicago home.

What a great event! Thanks to the Chicago History Museum for asking us to take part!

PHOTO CREDIT: Chicago History Museum/James Warden

07 October 8:34 am

The Fire and a few other results went their way this weekend. Still, the Men in Red remain just below the red line, two points back of the final playoff spot in the East with three matches left to play.

A breakdown of the weekend and what it means for the current Eastern Conference playoff picture…

x - 1) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 53 (15-9-8)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: DDWWW (11pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 10-2-4 / 5-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 59
Average Opponents Pts: 45.0
Remaining Schedule: 10/20 @ HOU, 10/27 vs. CHI

Rundown: New York held a long lead, controversy ensued, New England went up 2-1 late only to see Tim Cahill bag an incredible header to see Red Bull walk away with a 2-2 draw and eventually become the first team in MLS to clinch a playoff berth.

Still, the game will feel like a missed opportunity at home for a team still hoping to win the Supporters Shield and lock down the Eastern Conference top seed. The result is disappointing from a Fire perspective for two reasons: 1) It gives New England an extra point and 2) It almost assuredly makes Red Bull’s home game vs. the Fire on October 27 all the more meaningful.

New York will take a break off this week before visiting high-flying Houston on October 20.

2) Sporting KC
Current Points: 51 (15-10-6)
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home / 2 away)
Last 5: WLWWW (9pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-5-3 / 7-5-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 60
Average Opponents Pts: 35.6
Remaining Schedule: 10/9 at HOU, 10/18 vs. D.C., 10/23 vs. OLI**, 10/26 @ PHI

Rundown: Sporting KC did exactly what they needed to do, getting a well-earned 1-0 victory at Columbus Saturday night. The result means Sporting has earned just three points less on the road than they have at home this season – a somewhat incredible away record in MLS terms.

KC controls their own destiny for Eastern Conference top spot but faces a very tough test Wednesday vs. a Dynamo side that jumped up to third this weekend. A Sporting win in that match automatically puts them into the playoffs but they can also make it with a combination draw and Fire draw or loss would also do the trick.

3) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 47 (13-10-8)
Games Remaining: 3 (2 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: WWWLD (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-3-3 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 39.7
Remaining Schedule: 10/9 vs. SKC, 10/20 vs. NY, 10/24 @ AU**, 10/27 @ D.C.

Rundown: Houston continued their climb up the table with their third straight win Friday vs. Montreal. Things looked bleak for the Dynamo in early September but the side now seems destined to once again reach the playoffs and with back-to-back matches vs. Sporting KC and New York, their ascent might not stop at third place.

All we can say is, typical Houston Dynamo…

4) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 46 (13-10-7)
Games Remaining: 4 (2 home/ 2 away)
Last 5 Games: LDLLW (4pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-3-3 / 4-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 39.5
Remaining Schedule: 10/12 vs. NE, 10/16 @ LA, 10/19 vs. PHI, 10/26 @ TFC

Rundown: Montreal fell again 1-0 at Houston Friday night, moving the side that spent much of the regular season at the top of the East all the way down to fourth place. The Impact still hold a game in hand on everyone and both of their remaining home matches are six-pointers against New England (this week) and Philadelphia (October 19). If they can recover from their down form and win those games, they should still be in the playoffs.

5) Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 45 (12-10-9)
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home  / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: WWLLD (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-4-5 / 5-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 54
Average Opponents Pts: 37.3
Remaining Schedule: 10/12 @ D.C., 10/19 @ MTL, 10/26 vs. SKC

Rundown: There was a point Saturday night in which it looked like all three Eastern Conference games would go the Fire’s way, then Kleberson’s 96th minute free kick happened, giving Philadelphia a crucial 1-0 home win over Toronto FC.

With that win, the Union stayed above the red line, two points ahead of the Fire with three matches remaining. Philly will look to take advantage of Saturday’s game at lowly D.C. before having to close with tough matches at Montreal and vs. Sporting KC.

6) Chicago Fire
Current Points: 43 (12-12-7)
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: WDLWD (7pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 9-4-3 / 3-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 52
Average Opponents Pts: 40
Remaining Schedule: 10/12 @ FCD, 10/19 vs. TFC, 10/27 @ NY

Rundown: The Fire did the business with a 3-0 win at D.C. on Friday night and if not for Kleberson’s late free kick in Philly, would have sat in fifth place to end the weekend.

The Fire visit FC Dallas who kept their quite slim Western Conference playoff hopes alive with a 1-1 draw vs. Real Salt Lake Saturday. With the Galaxy destroying Chivas USA and even Vancouver picking up a point vs. Portland Sunday, it doesn’t look good for Dallas, who are seven points out of the final playoff spot with three games to go, meaning a loss Saturday would officially be there end of the season.

On the other hand, the Fire are 3-12-2 all-time in Dallas and will go for their second straight away win on Saturday – a feat the team has achieved just once in the past four seasons. A win in Frisco will put the Fire in prime position with a home match vs. Toronto looming.

7) New England Revolution
Current Points: 42 (11-11-9)
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: DDWLL (5pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-5-4 / 4-7-4
Maximum Possible Points: 51
Average Opponents Pts: 42.6
Remaining Schedule: 10/12 @ MTL, 10/19 vs. CLB, 10/27 @ CLB

Rundown: New England were no doubt the biggest losers from this weekend’s results, scoring two goals to go up 2-1 late only to have Cahill’s 96th minute header serve as a huge gut punch. A visit to Montreal, who are also coming off a loss at Houston, looms quite large and defeat in Quebec could do serious damage to the Revs’ playoff hopes.

Still, the home-and-home vs. Columbus to close the season will keep things interesting for the Revolution and at the very least, likely keep them in the mix until the final weekend.

8) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 41 (12-15-5)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: LWWWL (9pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 7-6-3 / 5-9-2
Maximum Possible Points: 47
Average Opponents Pts: 42
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 @ NE, 10/27 vs. NE

Rundown: As great as the Crew’s run under interim head man Brian Bliss was, all it would take was another loss to deal a horrible blow to their playoff hopes. The Crew will now take their bye week but they need to win their remaining two matches and hope for major help around the East in order to make the playoffs.

There’s still a chance but it’s just not very good.

04 October 8:16 am

After a disappointing September, the Fire head to the Capitol to face a D.C. United squad still on cloud nine after their shock upset of Real Salt Lake in the 100th U.S. Open Cup final Tuesday evening (LIVE 7pm CT on NBCSN). D.C.’s win combined with the Fire’s erratic away form means this game is very difficult to predict.

Here are some things to look out for a tactical perspective…

Forcing disruptions in the D.C. backline – not allowing them to act as a unit

In many games this season, D.C.’s opponents have stretched their backline, causing a number of errors. One example of this is forcing a central defender out of the middle and out wide. Another is forcing the defenders deep into their own half.

In D.C.’s recent match against New England, the Revs’ attack forced United to drop deeper and deeper, allowing players like Kelyn Rowe free shots from outside the box because defenders didn’t step up to challenge them.

In the Fire’s last MLS match against D.C., Joel Lindepere played some brilliant balls over the top of the United defense to the Fire strikers who were onside due to a combination of good runs and poor organization by the D.C. backline.

With the titanic effort put in on Tuesday night in Salt Lake, D.C. will almost certainly be making changes in defense but no matter who gets the start, the Fire players must be prepared to hound United’s backline from the first whistle and force them into making mistakes.

Changes to the Fire team – a more attacking starting eleven needed

In the first half of last weekend’s match against Montreal, the Fire set up too cautiously for my liking, most notably in the middle of the field where Logan Pause and Arevalo Rios played their first game together. Both players excel at breaking up the play but without Larentowicz or a more attacking player in the middle, the Fire were lacking in the attack.

Coach Frank Klopas recognized this and made two changes at halftime which completely turned the game around. The introduction of Alex and Chris Rolfe sparked the Men in Red into life offensively and but for some better luck, the team would have walked away with three points.

Bakary Soumare should return to the backline after his suspension, allowing Larentowicz to slot back into the midfield. Alex made big impact from the bench last week and starting him in front of Dilly Duka would give the Fire another dimension in the attack with his linkup play with Magee and Anangonó excellent in recent matches.

Duka has looked a little weary of late which isn’t a surprise considering he has started seven more matches this season than he did for the Crew throughout the whole of last season, already playing almost 500 more minutes with four games and potential playoff games to come.

A focus on Luis Silva – the former TFC man should start after being a sub in Salt Lake

Luis Silva came on for veteran Dwayne DeRosario with 15 minutes left to play in Tuesday’s Open Cup final and according to Washington Post journalist Steven Goff, Silva should get the start tonight.

Silva is comfortable playing as the lone striker or in the number 10 role, just behind the advanced forward.

As I mentioned in my tactical preview for the U.S. Open Cup semifinal, Silva and DeRo rely on their wide players to support the attack which allows Silva to get into the box and feed on crosses instead of having to drop deep and try and creature from there.

That being said, Silva is not afraid to take a shot from distance as Fire fans will remember, he scored a stunning 25 yard curler into the top corner against the Men in Red in July. The next week he also struck from distance, hitting a low bullet into the bottom corner against New England at RFK Stadium.

D.C. have scored a league low 20 goals this season and if the Fire can keep Silva under wraps tonight it will help keep the Red and Black off the score sheet.

Prediction: I have no idea what D.C. team we are going to see tonight but for all the talk of playing playoff spoiler, I think their minds will still be at Rio Tinto Stadium. 3-0 Fire with goals from Magee, Anangonó, and Berry.

03 October 9:16 am

In terms of my soccer writing heroes, The Washington Post's Steven Goff is the epitome for me.

Long before covering the game was trendy and social media made everyone an expert, Goff was there giving incredible coverage to the U.S. Men's and Women's national teams as well as D.C. United through his Soccer Insider blog on washingtonpost.com. He's kept up in the social media age as well, with nearly 100,000 people following his @SoccerInsider account on Twitter.

So naturally we here at Chicago-Fire.com are honored to have him answer three questions relating to D.C. United as the Men in Red prepare for a crucial clash with the newly crowned U.S. Open Cup champions Friday night at RFK Stadium (LIVE 7pm CT on NBC Sports Network).

Jeff Crandall: Where does Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup victory rank in terms of the club's other trophy wins?

Steven Goff: The four MLS Cup trophies rank higher than this championship, but among the three Open Cup titles, this one was the most satisfying -- on the road against a high-quality opponent during an otherwise terrible year.

It's hard to compare domestic tournament titles with international trophies (CONCACAF Champions Cup and Interamerican Cup many years ago). The Supporters' Shield is different because it involves a season-long effort. All in all, I haven't seen so many happy DCU faces in a very long time.

JC: With the playoffs long out of sight and the Open Cup match the last meaningful one for D.C. this season, what type of lineup do you expect United to run out Friday vs. the Fire?

SG: United played Tuesday night and traveled all day Wednesday, so I would expect a mix of regulars and reserves Friday. I would guess Jared Jeffrey, Kyle Porter, Luis Silva, Daniel Woolard, among others, will enter the starting lineup. Maybe Dennis Iapichino and Conor Doyle as well.

JC: Having won a trophy, is Ben Olsen's job safe for 2014 despite the possibility of finishing with the league's worst-ever regular season record?

SG: Olsen has a guaranteed contract in 2014, so even without winning the Open Cup title, I expected to see him back. The trophy certainly helps his cause. The players play hard for him and management loves him.

He's been involved with the club as a player, assistant coach and head coach for 15 years -- deep ties that are hard to break. I do think ownership sees a bright future with Olsen in charge.

 

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.

27 September 8:49 am

After a disappointing loss in Columbus last weekend, the Fire come back to Toyota Park to face the Montreal Impact in the second to last home game of the season (LIVE 7pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports 32). Montreal have dropped their last three of their fo MLS matches and are stalling at the wrong time. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Replacing Bakary Soumare at center back – a new partnership in the middle?

Since the return of Bakary Soumare to the Fire at mid-season, the Malian and Austin Berry have essentially played every match together in the middle. Though Baky has made a number of individual errors this season, his suspension comes at a bad time.

This opening provides a conundrum for coach Frank Klopas.

We could see the return of Hunter Jumper in the middle after his goal scoring exploits against SKC last month. Jalil Anibaba could also slot over to his natural position of center back with one of Wells Thompson, Mike Videira or Logan Pause filling in at right back.

In last weekend’s loss to the Crew, Jeff Larentowicz moved back into central defense after the Soumare red card. Starting Larentowicz in this position seems the most likely option but it would mean breaking up the midfield tandem of the former Revs player and Arevalo Rios, which has made the Men in Red an extremely difficult team to break down.

Whoever replaces Soumare will be tasked with stifling a Montreal team that has scored the third highest amount of goals in MLS this season.

Matching up against Marco Di Vaio – attempting to slow down MLS’s top goal scorer

There isn’t much to say about Marco Di Vaio that hasn’t been covered already. At 36 and in his first season in the league, he has made it look easy, scoring 18 goals to date.

An even scarier stat is that none of his goals have come from the penalty spot with Canadian Patrice Bernier continuing as the Impact’s regular PK taker.

Similar to Robbie Keane, Di Vaio’s finishing is a step above most MLS strikers. He also puts himself in excellent positions, with many of his goals coming from tap-ins. His header from two yards out against Columbus was a prime example of this.

Fortunately for the Fire, one of Di Vaio’s favorite set up men, Felipe, will be missing due to suspension. The absence of the Brazilian is a blow for the Impact but with Patrice Bernier and Justin Mapp having excellent seasons, Di Vaio will have ample opportunities Saturday night.

In a tactical preview for the Fire’s game against Montreal back in April I talked about cutting the supply line to the Italian but he still managed to bag the second goal in the Impact’s 2-0 win.

With the plethora of creative midfielders on the field for Montreal, the Fire players must not neglect Di Vaio because one lapse in concentration can be fatal.

Isolating the Impact’s aging Italian defenders – getting in 1v1 situations with Ferrari and Nesta

For allof Montreal’s attacking prowess, the Impact have given up the most goals of any team currently holding playoff positions. Both Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari are excellent and experienced defenders, often making up for a lack of pace with brilliant positioning.

Both players have shown to be uncomfortable however when they are in 1v1 situations against a player with a lot of pace. This does not happen often but if the opportunity arises, most likely from a counter attack, the Fire must capitalize.

The movement from the Fire’s attacking players has dragged center backs out of position on numerous occasions this season and I look for Mike Magee and Co. to do the same on Saturday night, especially against players who have lost more than a step of pace.

Prediction: 1-0 Fire with a goal from Magic Mike Magee 

24 September 10:06 am

The Fire's dip back below the red line on Saturday night was one of two moves in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With just over a month to play, certain teams are circling in on a playoff berth while others are battling for position.

The latest edition of Playoff Math awaits you below: 

1) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 51 (15-9-6)
Games Remaining: 4 (2 home / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: WWWWL (12pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 10-2-3 / 5-7-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 43.0
Remaining Schedule: 9/29 @ SEA, 10/5 vs. NE, 10/20 @ HOU, 10/27 vs. CHI

Rundown: New York watched Montreal lose and Sporting KC win on Saturday, knowing a home game against FC Dallas awaited the following day. It wasn’t a great match but New York utilized a 76th minute own goal from Erick to earn another home result and somewhat quietly move into first place in the Supporters Shield race in the process.

The Red Bulls continue to benefit from the two teams chasing them having Champions League matches but a top of the conference clash awaits them Sunday night when they visit Seattle in a match that could go a long way to decide the first silverware of the season.

A New York win or tie Sunday combined with Fire and Philadelphia Union losses would see the Red Bulls become the first team to qualify for the postseason.

2) Sporting KC
Current Points: 48 (14-9-6)
Games Remaining: 5 (2 home / 3 away)
Last 5: WWWLL (9pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-4-3 / 6-5-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 34.8
Remaining Schedule: 9/27 vs. PHI, 10/5 @ CLB, 10/9 at HOU, 10/18 vs. D.C., 10/23 vs. OLI**, 10/26 @ PHI

Rundown: Despite a scare, Sporting earned a point against Real Esteli in Champions League play at midweek and will just need another draw vs. Olimpia to guarantee final passage. In MLS play, they fought hard for a 2-1 win at Toronto took benefit of Montreal’s defeat to Vancouver to move into sole possession of second place in the East.

Sporting holds a game in hand over Red Bull but faces three matches against teams fighting for their playoff fate over the next two and a half weeks. Though their remaining schedule is easiest in the East, it will be a battle to stay in second and potentially push for the top spot.

3) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 45 (13-9-6)
Games Remaining: 6 (2 home/ 4 away)
Last 5 Games: LLWDW (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-3-3 / 4-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 38.2
Remaining Schedule:  9/24 vs. HER** 9/28 @ CHI, 10/4 @ HOU, 10/12 vs. NE, 10/16 @ LA, 10/19 vs. PHI, 10/26 @ TFC

Rundown: So what’s going on with Montreal? Their 3-0 loss to Vancouver marked their third straight across all competitions and second straight at home in MLS. Like their performances this season, the Impact have a mixed bag through the end of the year. On one hand they hold two games in hand over New York and one over Sporting but face a crucial Champions League match against Heredia on Tuesday night ahead of Saturday’s game vs. the Fire.

Montreal still has a shot in the Champions League but not a great one… Will they turn their complete focus on the Fire and playoff race or try to double-dip this week?

4) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 43 (12-10-7)
Games Remaining: 5 (3 home / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: WWLDL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-3-3 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 39.8
Remaining Schedule: 9/25 vs. WC**, 9/28 @ NE, 10/4 vs. MTL, 10/9 vs. SKC, 10/20 vs. NY, 10/24 @ AU**, 10/27 @ D.C.

Rundown:  After going on an end of summer slump, Houston has run off two straight wins the past two weeks to move firmly into fourth place in the East. They play a crucial Champions League home match Wednesday night vs. W. Connection before opening up a four-game stretch all against teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Three of those four matches are at home so after weathering a pretty difficult storm, its safe to say more than anyone, the Dynamo control their own fate in terms of being able to move up into one of the top three spots.

5) New England Revolution
Current Points: 40 (11-11-7)
Games Remaining: 5 (2 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: WLLDW (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-5-3 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 55
Average Opponents Pts: 43.0
Remaining Schedule: 9/28 vs. HOU, 10/5 @ NY, 10/12 @ MTL, 10/19 vs. CLB, 10/27 @ CLB

Rundown: One week New England is complaining about an offside goal being called back, the next they’re benefiting from it and not saying a peep. This was the case on Diego Fagundez’s tying goal in their 2-1 win over D.C. United. By virtue of that victory and the Fire’s defeat at Columbus, the two sides traded places in the East race this weekend.

The good news for the Fire is that New England has the toughest remaining schedule in the East, with a huge showdown vs. streaking Houston on the horizon this weekend. Back-to-back trips to New York and Montreal follow that clash and could define the Revs season if they don’t manage it the right way.

6) Chicago Fire
Current Points: 39 (11-12-6)
Games Remaining: 5 (2 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: LWDLD (5pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 9-4-2 / 2-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 54
Average Opponents Pts: 34.8
Remaining Schedule: 9/28 vs. MTL, 10/4 @ D.C., 10/12 @ FCD, 10/19 vs. TFC, 10/27 @ NY

Rundown:  The Fire lost a tough 3-0 result at Columbus on Saturday. It was a game the team went in with the mindset of taking three points and even after going down 1-0, they looked able to do it. Bakary Soumare’s red card made that hope near impossible and as the Fire pushed forward they got caught out twice more.

They now welcome a struggling Montreal side to Toyota Park Saturday and should remember the situation they faced the Impact in back in August -- days after a disappointing U.S. Open Cup defeat to D.C. United, the Fire rebounded with a 2-1 win, a game that stands as one of the team’s biggest results of the season.

While a 3-0 loss at this point in the season can be discouraging, perspective is important as the Fire remain just one point out of the top five. It is imperative for the team to take their remaining two home matches and find a way to get two results on the road to ensure they won't have to depend on other teams for a postseason berth.

7) Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 39 (10-10-9)
Games Remaining: 5 (2 home  / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: LLDLD (2pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-4-5 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 54
Average Opponents Pts: 32.8
Remaining Schedule: 9/27 @ SKC, 10/5 vs. TFC, 10/12 @ D.C., 10/19 @ MTL, 10/26 vs. SKC

Rundown: The Union were idle this past weekend and will hope to have worked out the kinks that have him on the poorest form out of any team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Unfortunately for them, they face a huge match Friday night away to a Sporting side that can put themselves on the brink of a postseason berth with a win.

A loss in this match would be devastating to the team’s chances but six points from their following two matches vs. Toronto and D.C. would certainly keep them afloat going into the final two weeks of the season.

8) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 35 (11-14-5)
Games Remaining: 4 (2 home / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: WWLWL (9pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 7-5-3 / 4-9-2
Maximum Possible Points: 50
Average Opponents Pts: 42
Remaining Schedule: 9/29 @ FCD, 10/5 vs. SKC, 10/19 @ NE, 10/27 vs. NE

Rundown: The Crew continued their late-season run under interim head man Brian Bliss with a resounding 3-0 win over the Fire on Saturday. There’s no doubt that the Crew need help from other teams but their attitude is in the right place to make a late-season run.

Every game is a must-win for the Crew from here on out and they’ll shift their focus to a visit to FC Dallas where they haven’t won since their MLS Cup championship season in 2008.

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.

20 September 8:57 am

After a dramatic later winner against New England, the Men in Red head to Firehouse East (#FHEAST) Saturday night to face a surging Columbus team (LIVE 6pm CT on My50). Since relieving coach Robert Warzycha of his duties and replacing him with Technical Director Brian Bliss, the Crew have won two of three and remain in the MLS Cup playoff hunt.

The Columbus hierarchy are calling this match a six-pointer and I tend to agree. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Sticking tight to Dominic Oduro – regardless of what position he plays in

In my last preview of a Fire vs. Columbus match, I heaped praise on Oduro and since then, the Ghanaian has continued to put in good performances.

Many in Columbus called for Oduro to be played up top and for the first two games under Brian Bliss this happened but last weekend the ex-Fire man moved to the right wing, making room for Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta to take their places in the middle of the attack.

In truth, Oduro is difficult to contain in either position.

On the wing, his pace forces the outside defenders to be on their guard and not stray too far forward. Hiss crossing is also dangerous -- he looks to get the ball in the box as early as possible, oftentimes playing it low to the ground, bending it around the defenders. These sort of balls are a nightmare to defend and limiting Oduro’s space to cross will be important.

Oduro’s runs also make him a difficult player to mark when he plays up top. In the Crew’s last match against Montreal, he made a brilliant run into the box to get on the end of a sublime through ball from Federico Higuain and score the winner.

It will be an added incentive for the Fire defenders to keep their former teammate off the score sheet on Saturday night.

The midfield battle – Will Trap and Tony Tchani vs Jeff Larentowicz and Arevalo Rios

In just a few matches together, Jeff Larentowicz and Arevalo Rios have formed quite a formidable partnership in the center of midfield.

In the Crew’s last match against the Impact, Will Trapp continued to start, this time alongside Tony Tchani. This partnership is similar to the Fire’s, with one player advancing to help the attack while the other sits.

Tchani particularly caught the eye, bringing a physical presence that was lacking to the Crew’s midfield. The Cameroonian has surprisingly good foot skills for a burly 6’4’’ midfielder and is equally comfortable playing through balls from deep or driving forward with the ball.

The battle between the two sets of central midfielders will be very interesting to watch, with both trying to catch the other out.

The Fire’s central pair must continue to stay disciplined and not be caught in a situation where both are too far forward. The Fire’s midfield tandem certainly have the edge in experience and I expect them to display that against the younger pair.

Focusing the attacks down the Columbus left – targeting Tyson Wahl and co.

In the first two matches under Brian Bliss, Tyson Wahl returned at left back for the Crew, after sitting out the end of Warzycha’s reign. Wahl didn’t have the best of games in the first two outings of the Bliss era before moving to center back for last week’s match against Montreal.

It remains to be seen what position he starts in on Saturday night but in any case, the left side of defense is certainly a weak link for the Crew and one the Fire should look to exploit.

In the Montreal game, former Fire winger Justin Mapp caused the Crew all sorts of problems from his wide right position. After strong performances for Alex, Patrick Nyarko, Joel Lindpere and Dilly Duka in recent weeks, picking two of the four to occupy the wide positions will be a tough decision for Frank Klopas.

I look for Jalil Anibaba to get forward at every opportunity to support the starting right winger and extend the Crew’s defensive woes on the left hand side for another match.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Jalil Anibaba and Chris Rolfe.

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. 

16 September 12:28 pm

For the first time since we started 2013 Playoff Math, you'll notice the graphic above has changed, meaning teams switched places after the weekend's results. That certainly makes everything more interesting!

Let's do this...

 

1) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 48 (14-9-6)
Games Remaining: 5 (3 home / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: WWWLD (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-2-3 / 5-7-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 41.0
Remaining Schedule: 9/22 vs. FCD, 9/29 @ SEA, 10/5 vs. NE, 10/20 @ HOU, 10/27 vs. CHI

 

Rundown: With Sporting KC sitting idle and Montreal losing at home vs. Columbus, Red Bull continued to hold serve with a 2-0 home win over Toronto Saturday. With five games remaining, New York could be on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth with a win vs. FC Dallas this weekend combined with losses for Philadelphia and New England.

 

2) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 45 (13-8-6)
Games Remaining: 7 (3 home/ 4 away)
Last 5 Games: LWDWW (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-2-3 / 4-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 66
Average Opponents Pts: 37.1
Remaining Schedule: 9/17 at SJ**, 9/21 vs. VAN, 9/24 vs. HER** 9/28 @ CHI, 10/4 @ HOU, 10/12 vs. NE, 10/16 @ LA, 10/19 vs. PHI, 10/26 @ TFC

Rundown: Montreal took a bit of a hit, being upset 2-1 by Columbus on Saturday – their first home loss to an Eastern Conference team this season. They still hold games in hand over both New York and Sporting KC and like Red Bull, can get on the cusp of a playoff berth with a win Saturday at home vs. Vancouver but you wonder how a cross continent trip for Tuesday’s Champions League match at San Jose will effect them?

 

3) Sporting KC

Current Points: 45 (13-9-6)
Games Remaining: 6 (2 home / 4 away)
Last 5: WWLLW (9pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-4-3 / 5-5-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 30.5
Remaining Schedule: 9/17 vs. RES**, 9/21 @ TFC, 9/27 vs. PHI, 10/5 @ CLB, 10/9 at HOU, 10/18 vs. D.C., 10/23 vs. OLI**, 10/26 @ PHI

 

Rundown: Sporting KC got rest this weekend ahead of a two-game week. Having won both of their early Champions League matches on the road, they should only need a draw at home against Real Esteli on Tuesday to qualify for the knockout round, before visiting Toronto FC on Saturday in league play. Like the two teams above them, a win in that match combined with dropped points below will push Sporting KC back to the playoffs for the third straight year.

 

4) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 40 (11-9-7)
Games Remaining: 6 (4 home / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: WLDLW (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-3-3 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 36.0
Remaining Schedule: 9/25 vs. WC**, vs. CHV, 9/28 @ NE, 10/4 vs. MTL, 10/9 vs. SKC, 10/20 vs. NY, 10/24 @ AU**, 10/27 @ D.C.

 

Rundown:  After what was likely their worst stretch of the season, the Houston Dynamo rebounded with a huge 1-0 away win at Philadelphia Saturday night, pushing the side back inside the playoff bubble.

They’ll recharge this weekend before tackling a crucial Champions League match vs. W. Connection and home game vs. Chivas USA in the span of three days next week. Crucial matches at New England, vs. Montreal and Sporting KC follow and will go a long way to determining Houston’s playoff fate and potential positioning.

 

5) Chicago Fire

Current Points: 39 (11-11-6)
Games Remaining: 6 (2 home / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: WDLDW (8pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 9-4-2 / 2-6-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 57
Average Opponents Pts: 34.3
Remaining Schedule: 9/21 @ CLB, 9/28 vs. MTL, 10/4 @ D.C., 10/12 @ FCD, 10/19 vs. TFC, 10/27 @ NY

 

Rundown:  The Fire missed a definite opportunity, dropping two points at Toronto FC on Wednesday but regrouped well to earn a key win vs. playoff contenders New England Saturday night, putting the Men in Red in playoff position for the first time this year after starting the season 2-7-1 through 10 games.

 
Whether the team has a slight advantage or disadvantage vs. the other postseason hopefuls depends on how you look at it. They do have the second easiest remaining schedule in terms of opponents points average but only two of the remaining six matches will be played at Toyota Park. Winning those home games remains key while taking a minimum of six points away from home will be needed if the team hopes to continue its season past October 27.

 

6) Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 39 (10-10-9)
Games Remaining: 5 (2 home  / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: LLDLD (2pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-4-5 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 54
Average Opponents Pts: 34.6
Remaining Schedule: 9/27 @ SKC, 10/5 vs. TFC, 10/12 @ D.C., 10/19 @ MTL, 10/26 vs. SKC

 

Rundown: Philadelphia is the team reeling the most this week after falling 1-0 at home to playoff rivals Houston. In terms of form, the Union have taken just two points from their last five and of their five remaining games, have two against Sporting KC (home and away) and one at Montreal.

 

The Union are tied with the Fire on points but are in a more difficult spot with a tougher schedule and one less game to play…

7) New England Revolution
Current Points: 37 (10-11-7)
Games Remaining: 6 (3 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: LLDWW (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-5-3 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 55
Average Opponents Pts: 36.3
Remaining Schedule: 9/21 vs. D.C., 9/28 vs. HOU, 10/5 @ NY, 10/12 @ MTL, 10/19 vs. CLB, 10/27 @ CLB

Rundown: There was a point on Saturday (actually two) that New England’s Playoff Math was looking rather good. Then Juan Luis Anangono, Mike Magee and Alex all happened. Soccer.

They get to rebound from their two consecutive losses with a home match vs. D.C. this week before a stretch of three critical matches vs. Houston, at New York and Montreal to close out September and open October. They could easily be out of the playoff race or be making a strong push into the top three by then.

 

8) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 35 (10-14-5)
Games Remaining: 5 (3 home / 2 away)
Last 5 Games: WLWLL (6pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 6-5-3 / 4-9-2
Maximum Possible Points: 50
Average Opponents Pts: 38.6
Remaining Schedule:  9/21 vs. CHI, 9/29 @ FCD, 10/5 vs. SKC, 10/19 @ NE, 10/27 vs. NE

 

Rundown: The Crew pulled off their biggest win of the season, winning away at Montreal 2-1 last Saturday. There’s little doubt that the victory boosted morale for the team but they still sit four points back of the playoff bubble and only have five games left.

 

The Crew have their backs against the wall with every remaining match, needing to win and hope teams above drop points. They can do both with a victory over the Fire on Saturday but any loss at this point really takes them all but mathematically out of the equation.

 

The goal for the Crew should be to take at least seven points from the next three matches, to make their season-ending home and home series vs. New England still matter.