It’s been a few weeks since my last blog on this subject and while not much has become easier to predict, at least one thing has become clearer.
Last time, there was a question about Columbus’ ability to make a run towards the playoffs. With that blog written just two days before the Crew began their current four-game winning streak, the question has been answered and their form currently has D.C. United as the current Eastern Conference outsiders. Still, I'm not yet convinced of the Crew's playoff credentials and I break down everyone's playoff hopes below...
WATCH: SKC 2, TFC 1 (9/1/2012)
1) Sporting KC
Current Points: 50
Games Remaining: 7 (3 home, 4 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 71
Average Opponents Points: 40.7
Remaining Schedule: vs. Houston (9/14), at New York (9/19), at Montreal (9/22), vs. Chicago (9/28), at Columbus (10/7), at New York (10/20), vs. Philadelphia (10/24).
The Rundown: It goes without saying that Sporting KC controls its own destiny for the top spot in the East but two games away to second place New York (the Red Bulls are 9-0-3 at home) combined with a home date against the Fire (who’ve beaten Sporting both games this season) and trips to Montreal (10-3-2 at home) and Columbus (8-3-2 at home) will make finishing top of the East difficult for KC.
Lucky for Peter Vermes’ team, they’ve been the best MLS side on the road this season, going 7-4-2 away from LiveSTRONG Sporting Park. They’re definitely going to be in the playoffs but even with a four point advantage at the top of the East, they could finish as low as third.
2) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 46
Games Remaining: 7 (5 home, 2 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 67
Average Opponents Points: 36.8
Remaining Schedule: vs. Columbus (9/15), vs. Sporting KC (9/19), at New England (9/22), vs. Toronto FC (9/29), vs. Chicago (10/6), vs. Sporting KC (10/20), at Philadelphia (10/27)
The Rundown: If they keep their home form, New York is my favorite to finish top of the East. They’re not only undefeated at home this season (9-0-3) but haven’t even drawn with an Eastern Conference foe at Red Bull Arena (7-0-0 this year). Consider that their two remaining away matches are at New England and Philadelphia, you could make a strong case that New York might not lose another game this season.
Of course playoff implications often turn things on paper upside down and New York does face their two closest competitors in three of their remaining home matches. Basically I’m saying, first in the East is really New York’s for the taking if they want it.
WATCH: CHI 3, HOU 1 (9/2/2012)
3) Chicago Fire
Current Points: 44
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home, 4 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 68
Average Opponents Points: 36.2
Remaining Schedule: at Toronto FC (9/12), vs. Montreal (9/15), vs. Columbus (9/22), at Sporting KC (9/28), vs. Philadelphia (10/3), at New York (10/6), at New England (10/20), vs. D.C. United (10/27)
The Rundown: As evidenced by the fact that the team jumped from sixth to third with one win Sunday night, the difference from third to six in the East is just three points and the victory over Houston gave the Fire the best odds of teams three through six to make a bid for a top two finish.
Like New York, Frank Klopas’ side has been rather spectacular at home this season, going 9-2-2 overall and 7-0-1 against Eastern Conference opponents. With that current form, it’s a decent expectation that the Fire should at least take points from all of their remaining four games at Toyota Park.
If the team takes four wins from their final eight, they’re definitely in the playoffs. The rub here comes when you consider the remaining road games, which have the Fire visiting Eastern Conference cellar dwellers Toronto and New England.
Save the road games in Kansas City and New York, higher expectations will have the Fire winning six of their remaining eight matches. If they do that, they’ll be in serious contention for a top two spot in the East but that will rest on how the team does in those two six-pointers.
4) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 42
Games Remaining: 7 (4 home, 3 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 63
Average Opponents Points: 34
Remaining Schedule: vs. Real Salt Lake (9/6), at Sporting KC (9/14), at Philadelphia (9/23), vs. New England (9/29), vs. Montreal (10/6), vs. Philadelphia (10/20), at Colorado (10/27)
The Rundown: Of the seven teams still in the playoff picture, Houston definitely has one of the easiest schedules. If they can take points from their next two games vs. RSL and at Sporting, all five of their remaining matches are winnable.
The biggest question mark for Houston is how they balance their remaining two CONCACAF Champions League group games (9/20 vs. CD FAS, 10/23 vs. Olimpia) while staying in the playoff race. Dominic Kinnear has done a pretty good job of getting result when his team is coming off a competitive game played four days or less before, going 4-3-6 this season.
The fact that the team got four points from their two visits to Central America earlier this month should give them a little ease but having a crowded fixture list across two different competitions will be difficult. The Dynamo’s saving grace will be their unbeaten home form at BBVA Compass Stadium where they’ve gone 8-0-5 since opening in May.
Like the Fire, four wins from their final seven should do the trick but picking up a point or two extra will get them in for sure.
WATCH: CLB 2, MTL 1 (9/1/2012)
5) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 42
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home, 4 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 66
Average Opponents Points: 35.1
Remaining Schedule: at New England (9/5), at New York (9/15), vs. Chivas USA (9/19), at Chicago (9/22), vs. Philadelphia (9/29), vs. Sporting KC (10/7), at D.C. United (10/20), vs. Toronto FC (10/28).
The Rundown: Riding a six match unbeaten streak of which the last four have all been victories, Columbus is certainly the hottest team in MLS and have pushed their way from potential spoiler right into the thick of the Eastern Conference race.
While the four straight wins are nice, consider that all four were against the bottom four in the East and three were at home. Furthermore the victories against New England and Montreal on the weekend came with stoppage time goals. I’m not saying they’re not a legitimate contender and summer acquisitions Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta are reason for concern for any of the Crew’s upcoming opponents but I do think remaining games at New York, Chicago and vs. Sporting KC could prove a blow to their chances.
Basically, if the Crew beat someone above them, everyone in the East has more cause for concern.
6) D.C. United
Current Points: 41
Games Remaining: 7 (3 home, 4 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 62
Average Opponents Points: 30.4
Remaining Schedule: vs. New England (9/15), at Philadelphia (9/20), vs. Chivas USA (9/23), at Portland (9/29), at Toronto FC (10/6), vs. Columbus (10/20), at Chicago (10/27)
The Rundown: D.C. are the team that find themselves currently just outside the playoff bubble by one point but of the seven teams still in the race, have the easiest schedule with their opponents average point total sitting at 30. Their next five matches all come against sides that are pretty well out of their respective playoff races but one thing to note is that D.C. hasn’t traveled well to the west coast this season, going 0-3-1, making their September 29 trip to Portland an interesting one.
If D.C. does the business in those five matches, they should be in a good spot to play for positioning in their final two games against Columbus and the Fire to close out the season.
7) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 39
Games Remaining: 5 (2 home, 3 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 54
Average Opponents Points: 36.4
Remaining Schedule: at Chicago (9/15), vs. Sporting KC (9/22), at Houston (10/6), at Toronto FC (10/20), vs. New England (10/27)
The Rundown: Simply put, Montreal are still in the race but with only five matches remaining, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll be in the top five come season’s end. That doesn’t mean the first-year MLS side can’t muck things up for other playoff contenders.
The team’s road form this season (2-12-1) is likely what will keep Jesse Marsch’s side out of the postseason but their play at Stade Olimpique and Stade Saputo (10-3-2) is what has them in this position. All teams contending for a playoff spot should put a lot of emphasis on the team’s home match vs. Sporting KC on September 22 – I’ve got it marked as one of my top games where teams can make up points on the current Conference leaders.
Even considering Montreal has only taken points in three road matches this season, they’ll still look to finish their first MLS campaign strong and so the Fire and Dynamo would be wise to take them seriously as they make their own playoff push.
Stopping Dynamo midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia is one key to three points Sunday vs. Houston
Having had over ten days to ponder the loss to DC, the Fire take to the field Sunday night at Toyota Park against the Houston Dynamo. (NBC 5.2/Galavision 6:00pm CT) Houston have had their own slips of late but will be looking to take away some points in a massive Eastern Conference match up. Here are a few things to look out for tactically.
Right back starter: Jalil Anibaba or Dan Gargan?
In the past few games, Jalil Anibaba has started over Dan Gargan at right back. Though not playing in his natural position, Jalil has used his athleticism and speed to make the transition to the outside. After a tough game against DC, some fans were calling for the return of Gargan but, against Houston, Anibaba’s aerial abilities will be needed.
Everyone knows that Dominic Kinnear’s team makes its living on scoring from set pieces. The Dynamo are a big side and Anibaba's height will be needed to deal with the likes of Will Bruin and Macoumba Kandji
WATCH: Fire vs. Dynamo Preview
Double team in the left: Neutralize Kandji
In Houston's last two league matches, Kandji had two completely different performances. Against Toronto, especially in the first half, he was excellent, running at the defenders, latching on to long balls over the top and also bringing the ball inside to link up with his strike partners and advancing play makers.
The week before against Columbus, Kandji was effectively shut out of the game by being double teamed. Columbus also didn't allow him any room to operate out wide which made him a non-factor in the game. If the Fire continue their favored formation, either Patrick Nyarko or Alvaro Fernandez will need to drop to support Anibaba and prevent Kandji from getting in 1v1 situations.
Stop Davis and Garcia: plugging the middle
Against DC last week, Chris Rolfe was unable to operate because United packed the midfield. I can see the Fire deploying the same technique against Houston and their two deep lying play makers: Brad Davis (if healthy) and Boniek Garcia. Both are given license to roam, and do so eagerly knowing that recently returned midfielder Ricardo Clark is staying behind to protect the back four.
The movement and passing ability of Davis and Garcia is Houston's biggest threat and if the Fire can stop both players from creating, it will cut off the supply line to the attacking three. The outside midfielders, especially Fernandez who has experience playing in the middle, will need to tuck in as much as possible to help out Pavel Pardo and Daniel Paladini.
This, of course, leaves a lot of space out wide for the outside backs to move into but it is a worthwhile risk if it prevents Davis and Garcia from linking with the attacking three.
Biggest strength and biggest weakness: midfield
For all the talk of Houston's attacking talents from midfield, the weakness of the 4-3-3 system is that it only contains one defensive midfielder. Ricardo Clark may be one of the best holding midfielders in the league but he can easily be exploited if the Fire can transition quickly from defensive to attack.
Columbus did this to perfection against the Dynamo in their recent 2-2 draw. Houston's center backs like to come forward to help Clark out in an attempt to cut off balls into the target forward (in the Fire’s case, Sherjill MacDonald) and this creates gaps that someone like Chris Rolfe can move into.
In this formation, Rolfe should have more room to create and we all saw how effective that was against New England. Because Houston is playing away from home, they won't be as inclined to attack as the would be at home but on the occasions that they do get men forward, the Fire must be ready to pounce.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 1, Houston Dynamo 1 with Sherjill MacDonald bagging his second goal for the Fire.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
I’ll be honest, the 2012 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup became sort of an afterthought following the Fire’s disappointing overtime exit to the Michigan Bucks back in May.
I believe FDR biographer Hugh Gallagher said it best when speaking about the former President’s attitude towards his paralysis, “Denial is a useful thing in its place.” With the team knocked out, it just became easier to take this route.
Of course as the summer went on and the tournament reached its final rounds, we were all faced with the scary prospect of seeing Seattle Sounders FC equal our club’s MLS-record four Open Cup titles. Come mid-July, the only thing that stood in their way was Sporting KC, who to some great resentment in Cascadia, outbid the three-time defending champions to host the final at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park.
With the news that his second-year stadium would host the final, Sporting CEO and serial tweeter Robb Heineman was understandably excited and encouraged the traveling support from Seattle to join in what would be a vibrant night at his newish stadium.
It is well known in MLS supporter’s circles that LiveSTRONG isn’t exactly as open in accommodating away fans in the same way that most other MLS stadia are (mainly with the use of flag poles). With that in mind, Sporting KC supporter @KarahM318 followed up on his tweet and Heineman even went a step further.
Flag poles for the final! Why not?
Certainly Heineman had already recognized the stature of the occasion when the bid money cleared his checking account but it was a great move on the club’s part to allow Sounders FC fans to support their team in a way they're used to in the Final.
Despite severe weather that delayed the start of the match, the audible and visual atmosphere created by both sides was fantastic. While we’re no fan of rave green in these parts, the contrasting flags (on poles) looked great.
(Photo Courtesy of Aaron Riner)
Of course in the end, Sporting thwarted Seattle’s bid to tie the Fire’s Open Cup record and for that, we’re all thankful.
Perhaps enthused by KC’s willingness to allow Seattle fans help create more atmosphere at the match, Section 8 Chicago Chairman Joel Biden tweeted to Heineman asking if the same courtesy would be afforded Fire supporters upon their visit there in September…
And this leads to the crux of the problem.
I have the utmost respect for Robb Heineman and what his group has accomplished in KC but if memory serves, it was he that was the biggest champion of his club’s new-found rivalry with the Fire last year. Seeing rivalries as organic things that come through supporters and a history of on-the-field battles, the Fire front office didn’t go along with the “plan”.
Given Heineman’s tweet, I’m left to wonder if he and Sporting have left the “rivalry” behind and if that’s the case, then why?
Does it have to do with the Fire’s domination since it “started”? (The Men in Red are 3-0-1 against Sporting KC since it “began” last year).
If not, I have to ask why the season series finale against your biggest rival, one that has certain MLS Cup playoff implications isn’t deemed, “special”? Certainly allowing the traveling support from Chicago to wave flags in your stadium will make your place that much better for the national television audience tuning in on NBC Sports Network…
When Sporting KC brought 400 people to watch the Men in Red take one of their aforementioned “rivalry” victories this past May, the Fire allowed those from the KC Cauldron to wave flags in support of their team throughout the 2-1 loss. It’s a practice that’s long been in place at Toyota Park, even going back to those days that Sporting were known as the Wizards (see photo below).
Maybe it's supporter-style gamesmanship, or perhaps PVC piping is just more dangerous in Kansas but the vast majority of MLS stadia allow this type of support from both sides of fans.
MLS has a league-wide list of in-stadium Supporters Exemptions that allow for the use of drums, horns and other musical instruments, banners and signs that meet what can be described as a “good taste” criteria and most importantly to this blog, flags on poles.
The caveat is that all use of the above items are “permitted at locations and times determined by the club or venue management.”
LiveSTRONG Sporting Park security has already proven capable of dealing with the waving flags in the stands, so really what is the issue?
Should MLS stadia that currently allow this type of support take a “quid pro quo” approach with fans whose home venues do not? Should there be a true, across the board set of standards for visiting supporters throughout the league’s 19 home venues?
In either case, I challenge Fire supporters to agitate for this right at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park when the team looks to sweep the season series there on Friday, September 28.
If you agree with this article, tweet it or even just your thoughts on the subject to @SportingKC and most importantly their CEO @RobbHeineman using hashtag #FearTheFlag. Or use the tweet button to the right and it'll do it all for you!
Flag poles or not, a contingent from Section 8 Chicago and Sector Latino will be heading to support the Fire at next month's all-important match at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park. Secure your bus and match ticket by clicking here.
Lets be honest, with the Men in Red losing 4-2 at DC on Wednesday and being the only MLS team with this weekend off, you had a little bit of concern regarding where the team would be sitting come Monday morning.
Luckily for the Fire, teams from north of the border made this idle weekend a reasonably good one (if not tighter) heading into next Sunday's all-important home clash vs. Houston.
A quick wrap up of weekend results that have to do with the Eastern Conference playoff race...
Montreal Impact 3, DC United 0
Highlights: Montreal 3, D.C. United 0
Riding off their 4-2 defeat of the Fire at midweek, DC United visited the Montreal Impact in a Saturday afternoon matinee. Despite their result on Wednesday, the game marked United's third in six days (forcing Ben Olsen to bring starters Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius and Branco Boskovic off the bench) and came against an Impact side that has taken 10 of its 12 victories at home this season.
Longtime Canadian international Patrice Bernier stole the show on the day, setting up Marco Di Vaio's 24th minute goal before talllying a 50th minute penalty and icing the match with his second goal deep into second half stoppage time.
United rarely threatened and saw their best chance come in the 78th minute when Troy Perkins thwarted Marcelo Saragosa from close range.
With the victory, Montreal (12-13-3; 39pts.) moves within one point of DC (12;9-4; 40pts.) for the final playoff spot in the East but time isn't on their side. With 28 games played, Jesse Marsch's team has taken the field more than any other MLS team this season and will likely need 12-15 points from their remaining matches, plus get a little help along the way to become just the third expansion team in league history to qualify for the playoffs in their inaugural year.
Good omen for Jesse, he was part of the first one that did it...
UP NEXT: More games with playoff implications as DC continues its torrid stretch, playing their fourth game in 10 days when they host New York on Wednesday, August 29 (7pm CT; Galavision) while Montreal visits upstart Columbus next Saturday, September 1 (6:30pm CT; MLS Live, Direct Kick)
Columbus Crew 4, New England Revolution 3
HIGHLIGHTS: Columbus 4, New England 3
This is the one that didn't go our way, though from the early-going, things looked good when some sloppy defending from the Crew saw Ryan Guy and Jerry Bengtson put the Revs up 2-0 inside 23 minutes.
Showing the inconsistent nature of New England this season, the Crew took the lead though even before halftime as two stunning free kicks from Columbus DP Federico Higuain sandwiched around a Jairo Arrieta finish to take the home side into the half up 3-2. Yes Fire fans, Higuain is the real deal and Crew head coach Robert Warzycha knows it.
New England stabilized at the break and would pull things level in the 81st minute when Lee Ngyuen sent substitute goalkeeper Matt Lampson the wrong way on a penalty kick. The Crew would have the last laugh minutes later as Arrieta ran onto Tony Tchani's through ball into the box and poked his second goal of the night past Matt Reis, ending a wild night of scoring at Crew Stadium.
Though there was little doubt New England's (6-14-5; 23pts.) season was over, this one hammered the coffin shut while the victory extended Columbus' (10-8-6; 36pts.) unbeaten run to four matches and kept the Crew within three points of sixth place Montreal and four behind DC for the final playoff spot in the East.
UP NEXT: Both teams are back in action Wednesday when the Crew will hope to win their third straight as they visit Philadelphia (7pm CT; MLS Live, Direct Kick) while New England will hope to snap their eight-match winless run when they welcome Chivas USA to Gillette Stadium (7pm CT; MLS Live, Direct Kick).
Houston Dynamo 1, Toronto FC1
With Toronto well at the bottom of the East, any points they can take from higher teams helps a lot. This game marked midfielder Ricardo Clark's first appearance since returning to the Dynamo from stints in Germany and Norway and also provided a good view into the current form of the Fire's next two league opponents.
Houston would take the lead in the 21st minute when forward Will Bruin ran on to Boniek Garcia's ball out of midfield before chipping onrushing TFC 'keeper Freddy Hall. The Dynamo threatened for the second goal throughout and would end the game witha 14-8 shots advantage but surrendered the equalizer and two points in the 84st minute when sloppy marking at the back saw Terry Dunfield head home Darren O'Dea's cross from the right.
With the result, Houston (11-6-9; 42pts.) remains in third place, just one point ahead of the Fire, with the good guys holding one game in hand. To say next Sunday's match against the orange-clad team at Toyota Park is a pivotal one would be an understatement. The result keeps Toronto FC (5-15-6; 21pts.) in the Eastern Conference cellar but also shows a team that can't be taken lightly heading into the home stretch.
UP NEXT: Houston takes a break from MLS action as they travel back to Central America for the second time in a week to face Honduran side Olimpia in CONCACAF Champions League group play on Thursday, August 30 (Fox Soccer; 9pm CT) before heading to Chicago for next Sunday's game (6pm CT; NBC Nonstop, Galavision). Toronto FC will hope to do better in CONCACAF play when they host Santos Laguna in the Champions League on Tuesday, August, 28 (7pm CT; Fox Soccer) before continuing its spoiler bid in a visit to Sporting KC on Saturday, September 1 (7:30pm CT; MLS Live, Direct Kick).
A quick view at the Eastern Conference Standings after last night...
ON TAP TODAY...
First place in the Eastern Conference (Sporting KC) hosts the second place New York in their first of three meetings over the next two months, live tonight at 8pm CT on ESPN2.
Fire fans holding out hope for the top seed in the East would do well to hope for a draw in the game ...
The Fire head to DC (live coverage at 6pm CT on CSNChicago) on the back of three straight victories after a tough 2-1 win at home against New England on Saturday. DC are entering the game after a fiery match against Philadelphia the following day where controversy and red cards reigned. Both United and the Fire are calling this a "six pointer" and DC will be looking for revenge after last year’s incredible "Capital Comeback" at RFK Stadium. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
The Return of Pappa: Who Starts on the Left?
Marco Pappa came off the bench for the last 13 minutes (plus another questionable five minutes off stoppage time) against New England after playing longer than Frank Klopas had liked for Guatemala in a midweek friendly. Pappa's return means it’s likely that Patrick Nyarko will begin the game against DC on the bench.
WATCH: Chicago Fire vs. D.C. United Preview
Having set up Chris Rolfe’s 5th minute penalty call and assisted on Sherjill MacDonald’s eventual game-winner, Nyarko had a very productive 75 minutes before being subbed out after picking up a slight back injury.
Both players are playing well at the moment but Nyarko's slight knock combined with a well-rested Pappa makes it more likely the Guatemalan will start. Nyarko has excelled in his recent role coming off the bench and could make a big impact if called upon.
DC Defenders: Bare Bones at the Back
With a combination of injuries (Robbie Russell and Daniel Woolard) and suspensions (Emiliano Dudar), DC United are very thin at the back.
One position in particular which is a problem area for Ben Olsen is right-back. Dejan Jakovic played most of the Philadelphia game there and looked very shaky at times before being subbed out. Olsen stated that the sub was because Jakovic needed a breather in order to be ready for Wednesday's match but it is likely that he will play in the middle with Chris Korb moving to the right.
Olsen has also floated the idea of playing Andy Najar in this position but that seems unlikely Wednesday night. Pappa or Nyarko on the left, combined with Gonazlo Segares getting forward in support, has the potential to exploit this DC weakness.
Outside Backs: Beware of Runs in Behind
Though Sega and Anibaba have done a fantastic job getting forward to support in the attack, they must also beware of being caught high up the field. This happened on more that one occasion against New England last week and could cause problems Wednesday.
Fire coach Frank Klopas noted that in the New England match the team had a lot of turnovers and were sloppy at times with their passes and with Jalil and Gonzalo's eagerness to get forward, a bad pass resulting in a turnover can leave the team exposed.
Rolfe vs Kitchen: Holding Mid vs Creative Play-maker
The battle I am most looking forward to tonight is Fire PDL alum Chris Rolfe vs. a much more recent Fire PDL alum Perry Kitchen. Kitchen plays in the holding midfield role for United, sitting just in front of the back four, a position that Rolfe loves to operate in. Against New England, Rolfe was everywhere and his combination play was superb.
After seeing the performance against the Revs, it wouldn't surprise me if DC coach Ben Olsen had Kitchen man-mark Rolfe in an attempt to stop him from creating. What made Rolfe so dangerous was his movement, not only dropping behind MacDonald, but also looking to get in behind the defense. If Rolfe can create space for himself like he did on Saturday night, it could help to unlock the DC defense.
Prediction: 1-1 with Sherjill MacDonald tallying his second goal in a Fire shirt
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
There was a point Sunday afternoon in which things were looking pretty good for the Fire’s positioning in the East. DC United had just suffered a somewhat controversial 1-1 draw at home to Philadelphia while due north Bright Dike and Darlington Nagbe had put the West’s bottom team Portland up 2-0 at New York.
Of course Kenny Cooper and Tim Cahill had pulled the home side back level before halftime, the Timbers flubbed two breakaway chances and Heath Pearce headed home the winner in the 83rd minute to push New York back into sole possession of second place in the East.
Later on Sunday night, Columbus used goals from Cole Grossman and Eddie Gaven to erase a 1-0 deficit but had to settle for a 2-2 draw when Andy Gruenebaum muffed Adam Moffat’s 82nd minute equalizer.
WATCH: Red Bull 3, Timbers 2
The result meant that the Top 5 in the Eastern Conference closed the weekend the same way they entered it, effectively pushing the Fire back down to fourth place (losing the goals scored tie breaker to Houston).
All this is by way of saying its going to be a scrap or as Brendan Hannan put it this morning, a “real dog fight” the rest of the way in the Eastern Conference. With 10 matches remaining and five of them against the other four in the Top Five, the Fire control their playoff destiny and seeding perhaps just as much as anyone in the East.
"[Playoff qualification] is in our hands," head coach Frank Klopas told Chicago-Fire.com Monday. "They’re all obviously difficult matches because most of the games we play are going to be against teams that are going to be right there until the end. Its exciting but I think we feel good about having those games at home and having the opportunity to control our own destiny."
While Montreal and Columbus still have a shot at the postseason, popular opinion has the top five now remaining the top five come October 28 making a “mini-league” of sorts the rest of the way for the Fire, Sporting KC, Red Bull, the Dynamo and United.
See below the “mini-league” grid of remaining matches between the East’s top 5 teams.
|vs. 9/14||vs. 9/28||-|
|x||-||vs. 10/6||@ 8/29|
|HOU||@ 9/14||-||x||@ 9/2||-|
|CHI||@ 9/28||@ 10/6||vs. 9/2||x||
When looking at the chart, two things undoubtedly stick out...
1) No that's not a mistake, the East's top two teams Sporting KC and New York, will play eachother three more times through the end of the season. Depending on how their other matches go (something that will continue to be a common theme), the Conference's top seeds could well be decided in those three games.
2) The Fire are the only team in the Top 5 that will play everyone around them and have two games against D.C., meaning the team seems to have the best shot of controlling it's own destiny in the tight playoff race. With 15 points available in these matches, if the Men in Red can take anywhere around 11 or 12, they could be in very good shape for a top two finish.
Either way, the Fire manager reiterated the game of most importance is the one upcoming.
"It’s up to us," continued Klopas. "We don’t have to rely on other teams like we did last year but the most important thing is to not look too far down the road and so our next game against D.C. is what we have to hone in on right now."
The Fire face yet another Eastern Conference foe at home this week: New England. The clubs appear to be heading in opposite directions with Frank Klopas’ side only losing one of their last five while the Revs have lost four out of five but the Men in Red can’t overlook this one. Here are a few things to watch out for from a tactical standpoint.
Who will replace the captain? Logan out 4-6 weeks
Last week’s 3-1 win in Philly was very costly, namely because of the injury to captain Logan Pause who, to date, has had yet another stellar year. With Logan out for at least a month, two major questions arise – who should replace him in the lineup and should his injury force the Fire to change their tactics? The answer to the second question is almost certainly no. The tactic of two holding midfielders has served the Fire well this season and there is no need to change it.
Replacing Logan is a difficult task but the Fire certainly to have options. Fernandez slotted in for Logan in the second half against Philly but players like Corben Bone, Mike Videira, Daniel Paladini and Victor Pineda can all play in the center of midfield.
Having this many options is a luxury for coach Klopas but the obvious candidate in my eyes is Fernandez. He is the most experienced MLS midfielder and did a fine job in that position last week. Fernandez also didn’t play in Wednesday’s reserve game which could be another indication that he will be getting the start alongside Pardo.
Shots from Distance: Be Wary
Though New England haven't scored too many goals of late, its not for lack of trying. Midfielders, Lee Nguyen, Saër Sène (sometimes a striker) and Benny Feilhaber are all not afraid to pull the trigger from distance. Just a few weeks ago, Sène scored an absolutely brilliant goal against the Union, cutting in from the right before blasting it past Zack MacMath.
PREVIEW: Fire vs. NE
Nguyen scored a goal-of-the-season candidate earlier this season when he volleyed the ball from outside the box into the top corner. The Fire cannot allow the Revs' midfielders space to shoot from the outside. New England will also have target man Jerry Bengtson back from international duty and will be looking to him to provide layoffs for shots from the outside.
Chris Tierney: A Threat from the Left
New England have deployed different formations in its past two games but one thing that hasn't changed is the team’s reliance on left back Chris Tierney to get forward to provide crosses into the box. Against KC, Nguyen constantly pushed inside to allow space for Tierney to move into on the left.
Against Montreal last week, New England played with one striker but again the Revs made room for Tierney on the outside to get the ball in the box. The players pushing inside also meant that New England had numerous players waiting to attack Tierney's crosses instead of just the forwards. In both of the past two games, the Revs have pushed Tierney up in advanced positions while keeping the outside right defender on more a leash.
If the Fire do indeed bring Fernandez into the middle it will be up to his replacement (presumably Nyarko) to track back and help either Jalil Anibaba or Dan Gargan when Tierney gets pushes forward into the attack.
PREDICTION: Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 0 with goals from Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com, follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
Last week, the Fire played a team with a newish coach and it’s the same with week when the Men in Red travel to Philadelphia to face a Union team headed by interim coach John Hackworth. Philly have had some ups and downs but are a very difficult team to beat on their day. Here are a few tactical things to look out for in Sunday night's game:
Freddy Adu: Jekyll and Hyde
COACH'S TAKE: Matko on Philly
Freddy Adu has a long history of inconsistency. When he is on, he can be one of the best attacking players in MLS but far too often fans haven't seen the best of him. This season has also been a mixed one for Freddy but the past two games in particular, he has failed to show up. He did score a penalty in a 2-1 win over New England but in Montreal last week he was very isolated on the right wing.
Fullback Sheanon Williams failed to get forward to support Adu on the outside and this forced him to constantly play the ball into the middle when he would get it in a wide position. He even switched wings for a time but this didn't help. Under Hackworth, Philadelphia have become an attacking force but last week the wing play of Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp prevented their outside backs from getting forward.
The Fire should look to mimic that tactic, especially because it limits the support for young Fredua.
New Forward Taking On New Defender?
Last week, Fire Designated Player Sherjill MacDonald replaced Dominic Oduro at halftime and helped the team overturn a 1-0 deficit. MacDonald is getting back to match fitness and Sunday’s game could be a good opportunity for him to get his first start.
Oduro has struggled to find the net of late and his speed could be a game changer off the bench. If Philly are in need of a goal, Oduro is the perfect person to bring in because his “freaky fast” pace enhances the Fire's counter attacking ability ten-fold.
Whoever starts up top for the Fire Sunday could be facing a new center back paring for the Union, who may give a first start to former Fire player Bakary Soumare. The Mali international has been rehabbing a knee injury since returning to MLS from Germany side Karlsruher in June but he did play 90 minutes in a reserve game last week and could replace second-year defender Amobi Okugo at the heart of the Union defense.
New partnerships have the potential to be shaky and if Soumare does indeed start, I would look for the Fire to test out the new look back line as early and often as possible.
This, of course can also be achieved through set pieces. Philly have had a major problem this year in that department, giving up the most headed goals in the league. As we saw last week, the Fire and especially rookie-of-the-year candidate Austin Berry are a threat from corners and free kicks and this could be key to unlocking the Union.
Depth: If we need it, it’s there
With any team, having strong options off the bench is a massive bonus. It can help the coach to change his tactics but it also increases competition for the first team. After last month’s acquisitions, the Fire now have a bench that is not only stronger but has plenty of MLS experience.
Take last Saturday’s game for example: the Fire lineup card had names like Dan Gargan, Patrick Nyarko, Daniel Paladini, Alex and Sherjill MacDonald on the sub’s list. Soon enough we could be adding Cory Gibbs there.
The team's depth is going to be very important in the push to move as high up in the Conference standings as possible. If things aren't going well on Sunday, coach Klopas has tried and tested players that he can call on, something that could be the difference between one point and three.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 2, Philadelphia Union 0 behind goals from Marco Pappa and Sherjill MacDonald.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
With his equalizer in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Toronto FC, Fire midfielder Marco Pappa moved into a tie for fourth on the club’s all-time regular season goals list with former captain Peter Nowak at 26.
Throughout his time with the Fire, the Guatemalan international has quietly moved up the goal chart, bagging more than half of his goals (14) in the last 18 months.
Sitting eighth at the start of 2012, Pappa began his ascendency up the chart this season by tying Nate Jaqua at 21 goals with his “Olimipico” on April 28 vs. Seattle. A week later, his late game-winner at Chivas moved him into a three-way tie for fifth with Damani Ralph and Dema Kovalenko at 22.
Pappa took over fifth place with another game-winner vs. Dallas on May 23 and built towards Nowak with goals vs. Columbus (June 23) at Sporting KC (June 29) before tying the former Polish international Saturday night.
Sitting six goals back of Josh Wolff at third place on the list (32), I pose this question: Can Marco pass Josh with 12 matches remaining in the 2012 campaign?
While Pappa has never scored more than eight goals in one single campaign, it’s important to also note that he’s never had six this early in a season.
History could be construed to be on Pappa’s side in this quest as well as he’s tallied 11 career goals against the team’s remaining opponents and has scored two goals each against the likes of D.C. United (who the Fire still play twice), Toronto FC, Sporting KC and Red Bull New York.
Two of those remaining 12 games also come against the two worst defenses in Major League Soccer in Montreal (43 goals conceded) and Toronto FC again (40). All he needs is six to tie…
What becomes more evident with Pappa is the team’s success rate when he finds the back of the net. Marco has tallied 26 goals in 23 matches and the team has earned points in 19 of those games, winning 13. Over the course of his time with the Men in Red, the Fire have only lost four times when he’s tallied, once in each season since 2009.
With the team already losing a match in which he’s scored this season, you can tie a lot to wanting to see Marco hit at least for six more goals before the end of the campaign.
So what do you think, can Marco do it? Vote to the right and comment below to give me your thoughts...
1) FIRE LOVE NBC SPORTS… If you didn’t already know, tonight’s match can be seen LIVE on NBC Sports Network and that’s a good thing for the Fire. The side has won both previous matches on the national sports network earlier this season (3-2 at Toronto April 21; 3-1 vs. New York June 17) and had three different players score in both matches. Will the good ride on NBC Sports continue tonight?