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MLS Playoffs

23 October 8:54 am

Yesterday, I began the ambitious 11-part Playoff History series with a bang, taking a look back on the club’s magical run to the 1998 MLS Cup championship. Today, we step a year ahead to the bitter disappointment of an early exit from the 1999 MLS Cup playoffs.

It’s important to preface the club’s playoff experience in 1999 with a bit of context. After winning the 1998 MLS and U.S. Open Cup double, the Fire began a season of disappointments the following year with an early exit at the eventual U.S. Open Cup champions Rochester Rhinos on July 14.

Out of domestic cup competition, the team continued to focus on regular season play for the next two months before taking part in the CONCACAF Champions Cup in Las Vegas that fall. Playing on the rock-hard pitch at Sam Boyd Stadium, the Fire dispatched Trinidadian side Joe Public 2-0 in the first round before going to penalties with Costa Rican power Alajuelense after a 1-1 draw in the semifinal.

In the shootout, Lubos Kubik, who the year before had tallied six of six penalties taken during the regular season and playoffs, shot second and skied his effort high over the bar. His miss was the only one on the night as the Fire fell 5-4 to Alajuelense and leaving the Fire to miss out on the CONCACAF final played two days later.

 “In 1998 we seemed like a team of destiny that was just preordained to win. A year later, it seemed the fates were evening out and there was nothing we could do to prevent the inevitable failure.” – Former Chicago Fire President Peter Wilt

#2 Dallas Burn vs. #3 Chicago Fire – Western Conference Semifinals (best of three)

With the teams splitting their four matchups during the regular season, three of which went to the old MLS shootout to be decided, this playoff encounter promised to be a tight one.

GAME 1 played 10/16/1999 at The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas

WATCH: '99 Western Conference Semifinals vs. Dallas

 

Despite their previously more exciting matche, the first half of Game One could have seemed more like a heavyweight bout where no one wanted to land the first punch as neither team registered a shot on goal.

The home side did have a bit more of the play though and took the lead in the 52nd minute through Ariel Graziani when the Ecuadorian striker chipped Oscar Pareja towards the end line before the current Colorado Rapids coach centered across the box for an easy finish.

The goal also marked the first time the Fire had ever trailed in a postseason match.

Dallas would take their lead to 2-0 in the 75th minute when Graziani pounced on a loose ball at midfield. He’d stroll alone into the box, forcing Fire ‘keeper Zach Thornton to the floor before sliding the ball to the charging Mark Santel on the right, leaving the former U.S. international an easy finish past the desperate slide of Fire defender Tom Soehn.

The 2-0 score line seemed to wake the Fire up, pulling one back just four minutes later. Peter Nowak found the ball at the top of the penalty area and played it into the path of substitute midfielder John Ball on the right who slid a low effort past Dallas ‘keeper Matt Jordan.

With the goal, the Fire were charged for an equalizer but saw late efforts from Paul Dougherty, Diego Gutierrez and Ball all go begging, eventually falling 2-1.

GAME 2 played 10/23/1999 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.

Staring elimination in the face, the Fire picked up on the momentum from the end of the first game and took the lead 18 minutes in.

Diego Gutierrez had a misplaced clearance fall for him and took a low blast from distance. The ball ended up running perfectly into the stride of Peter Nowak who took one touch into the box before finishing past Jordan.

The Fire would double their lead 18 minutes later when Roman Kosecki pounced on a bouncing ball in midfield and strolled towards goal before hitting a somewhat weak left-footed effort that eluded Jordan and tucked inside the left post.

Ante Razov (right) would take the score to 3-0 just before the break. Chasing down a long ball out of the back from Jesse Marsch, Razov bodied off the challenge of Richard Farrer before seeing Jordan far off his line. The second-year Fire striker turned with the ball and hit a 20-yard effort that left the Dallas ‘keeper only with a front row seat to see it.

Jordan continued his shocking display just after the half. Nowak chipped a ball into the box from the left for Kosecki who could only get a partial touch to the ball, making it look as if the Dallas ‘keeper would come off his line to claim it. Jordan was a step late in his approach, however and Dema Kovalenko ran on, took a touch and finished from close range to close out the 4-0 score line.

The Fire seemed to have resurrected the demons from Game 1 and after Jordan’s horrific performance in the second game, left Dallas coach Dave Dir to make a switch to veteran Mark Dodd for Game 3.

GAME 3 played 10/27/1999 at The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas

The Fire’s momentum from Game 2 seemed to barely miss a beat in the decider with the Fire taking on three minutes to go up 1-0.

On the goal, Jerzy Podbrozny played a quick centering pass for Lubos Kubik who played Ante Razov through into the box. To get through the Dallas back line, Razov spun in stride without even touching the ball before placing his low effort past Dodd.

The series looked all but over two minutes later. Kubik lined up for a free kick 35 yards from goal and whipped a beautiful in-swinger between the penalty spot and the six-yard box where a sliding Jesse Marsch redirected the ball past Dodd and into the top right corner to go up 2-0.

Things weren’t all roses for the Fire in the first half as Razov left the match in the 15th minute with a hamstring strain. Already without Josh Wolff who had suffered a torn ACL back in August, the team’s attack lacked its two leading scorers for the remaining 75 minutes.

As a result, the Fire would start to fall apart after the break. In the 55th minute, future Fire defender Sergi Daniv sent a cross from the right that Zach Thornton could only get a hand to before Chad Deering cleaned up with a header at the back post in the 55th minute.

After the strike, the Fire would look to take back their two-goal lead but Dodd would stand tall turning away three efforts in two minutes from Peter Nowak (67th) Lubos Kubik (68th) and John Ball (69th).

Gaining in frustration, the team was awarded a number of yellow cards but maintained the 2-1 lead into the final 10 minutes.

Things would come undone though when defender C.J. Brown, who had done a great job in marking Dallas striker Jason Kreis throughout the series, was whistled for handling the ball in the box in the 83rd minute. On the ensuing penalty, Jorge Rodriguez sent Thornton the wrong way and brought the match level.

With Dallas holding all the momentum at home, they pushed forward for the game and series clincher in the 90th minute. John Jairo Trellez pushed up on the right and centered a ball that deflected off of Brown and saw Thornton make a swiping effort before falling straight to the feet of Graziani (right) who cruelly one-timed his effort off the underside of the cross bar to complete one of the most stunning comebacks in MLS Cup playoff history.

The final 10 minutes and whole of 1999 left former Fire President Peter Wilt to simply say, “The penalty against us that tied the game seemingly made the final outcome inevitable. Just as 1998 was destined to be our year, 1999 was destined not to be.”

The Fire would be left to look for redemption in 2000 (coming Wednesday)...

22 October 10:09 am

The MLS Cup playoffs are nearly upon us and even with Saturday’s disappointing result, you can feel the excitement for the club’s return to the postseason after a two-year absence. With their playoff qualification back on October 7, the team locked in its 12th postseason berth in 15 seasons, by far the best playoff qualification rate of all professional teams in Chicago in both their first 15 seasons of play and last 15 seasons.

With a strong postseason presence through 15 seasons, I wanted to take a year-by-year look back at the club’s postseason performances leading up to the beginning of the MLS Cup playoffs next Wednesday.

We'll begin where it all started: The magical run in 1998...

The Fire played their first two seasons in the Western Conference and aptly enough, the first saw them finish where the team could potentially finish this season (second place) behind only the league’s regular season champions LA.

#2 Chicago Fire vs. #3 Colorado Rapids Western Conference Semifinals (best of three)

GAME 1: Holding home-field advantage over Colorado, the Fire welcomed the Rapids to Soldier Field on October 1, 1998.

After forcing Colorado ‘keeper Marcus Hahnemann into five first half saves, the Fire would take advantage of Rapids defender Steve Trittschuh for the first time in the series when he pulled down Peter Nowak in the box, leaving refree Kevin Terry to whistle a penalty.

WATCH: The 1998 Playoff Run

 

As he’d done four out of four times during the regular season, defender Lubos Kubik blasted his effort to the top left corner to give the Fire a 1-0 lead in the 50th minute. Facing a loss in Game 1, the Rapids would equalize in the 79th when Adrian Paz’s cross from the right was deflected by C.J Brown and found Waldir with a diving header at the back post, forcing the game to a shootout.

In the decider, Tom Soehn and Frank Klopas converted to cancel out goals from Paul Bravo and Chris Henderson in the early rounds. Fire ‘keeper Zach Thornton then took over, making three consecutive stops on David Vaudreuil, Wolde Harris and Peter Vermes before Jesse Marsch chipped Hahneman to clinch the win and give the Fire a 1-0 series lead.

GAME 2: The Fire traveled to Mile High Stadium for Game 2 on October 5, knowing that a victory would push the team to the Western Conference final.

Once again, Peter Nowak would take advantage of Trittschuh, going on a stunning run through the Rapids midfield before being tripped up by the former U.S. international at the top of the box. For the second time in five days, Lubos Kubik would step up and convert his spot kick, this time placing a low effort to the left of Hahnemann in the 42nd minute.

Thornton would stand tall, making two second half saves to give the Fire a 1-0 victory and push the team to the conference finals.

#1 LA Galaxy vs. #2 Chicago Fire Western Conference Finals (best of three)

GAME 1:  Five days after advancing, the Fire traveled to The Rose Bowl to take on top-seeded LA on October 10. The Galaxy would outshoot the Fire 11-5, with the Fire not registering a shot on goal until the 86th minute.

Luckily enough, the two that came with just four minutes to play would be all the visitors would need as Lubos Kubik’s free kick was stopped with a diving save from Kevin Hartman before Jesse Marsch was there on the doorstep to tally his second winner of the postseason, sending the Fire back to Chicago with a  1-0 lead.

GAME 2: The Fire welcomed the Galaxy to Soldier Field on October 16 and would once again take the first lead.

In the 31st minute, C.J. Brown sent a long ball over the top and into the stride of Ante Razov. The U.S. international sped into the box before seeing his close-range effort stopped by Hartman but Captain Clutch Peter Nowak saw the rebound fall to him near the penalty spot and he fired the effort past the Galaxy ‘keeper to give the Fire the lead.

It lasted just six minutes as Cobi Jones cross from the right found a wide open Danny Pena in the box. With acres of space, Pena was able to take two touches before hitting a low effort to the inside post, catching Thornton flat-footed and equalizing just before the half.

LA outshot the Fire on goal 2-0 in the second half but couldn’t convert, forcing the Men in Red to another shootout. Through the first three rounds, the Galaxy held a 1-0 edge as Welton tallied while Nowak, Razov and Soehn all failed to convert for the Fire.

As he did against Colorado in Game 1, Zach Thornton would come up huge at the end, making three consecutive stops on Martin Machon, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Greg Vanney while Marsch converted and Podbrozny hit the back of the net to push the team into MLS Cup in front of 32,744 at Soldier Field.

Chicago Fire vs. D.C. United – MLS Cup ’98 – The Rose Bowl; Pasadena, CA

After wrapping up their conference final series in two matches, the Fire would return to The Rose Bowl on nine days rest while opponents D.C. United came into the match having played just four days prior against the Columbus Crew in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.

Facing the only champions the young league had ever known, the Fire were outshot by United 9-6 in the first half but the advantage wasn’t reflected on the score board.

In the 29th minute, Nowak’s quick combination with Razov saw the Fire captain into the box on the left.  Now in, the former Polish international simply slid the ball across to an open Jerzy Podbrozny who slotted past Tom Presthus to give the Fire a 1-0 lead.

It was Nowak again helping to pad the Fire’s lead just before halftime. This time, the future Ring of Fire inductee cut into the box from the left before unleashing a blast that took a deflection off the chest of Diego Gutierrez, sending Presthus to the right while the ball trickled in on the left.

As he had in so many previous playoff matches, Zach Thornton stood tall in the second half, making six saves and visibly frustrating United to give the Fire an unprecedented MLS Cup title in their expansion season.

2012 MLS Cup Playoff tickets are on sale now. Click Here to purchase yours today!

21 October 10:16 am

Saturday night’s flat performance at New England combined with results in New York, D.C. and Houston have put the Fire in a precarious position going into this weekend's regular season finale vs. United. With all five playoff teams now known, the result for the Men in Red means the team could literally still be seeded anywhere from second to fifth in the East come Sunday morning…

With only one regular season game left, this will be the last edition of Playoff Math for 2012 where I look at each team's best and worst case scenarios and potential seedings. Enjoy!

1) Sporting KC 
Current Points: 60 (40 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 63
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 1/2
Last Game: vs. Philadelphia (10/24).

The Rundown: Things have worked pretty well for KC heading into the playoffs. Saturday night they went and earned a second result in New York this season and combined with the Fire’s failure at New England, have nearly locked down the top spot in the East. At the very least, they'll finish second.

The Best Case: All they need to do is earn a draw in their final game against Philadelphia to take the top seed.

The Worst Case: A loss to Philly at midweek combined with a D.C.win over the Fire would push Sporting down to second based on the Goals For tiebreaker. 

Beyond just being a solid team, Sporting have more than earned their position in the table by being smart about how they’ve earned results in difficult places to play.

2) D.C. United
Current Points: 57 (52 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 60
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 1/4
Last Game:  at Chicago (10/27; 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network)

The Rundown: D.C. was the biggest mover of the night and did it all in dramatic fashion by coming back from two deficits to eventually down the Columbus 3-2 behind Lewis Neal’s stoppage time strike. The win propelled United past the Fire and into second, qualified them for their first postseason berth since 2007 all the while helping to end the Crew’s postseason hopes.

The Best Case: A win Saturday against the Fire combined with a Sporting loss to Philadelphia would push United to first in the East. They could still lock down second on Saturday with just a draw against Chicago. 

The Worst Case: A loss to the Fire and a New York win over Philadelphia would push D.C. to fourth and force them to host the Eastern Conference play-in game on October 31 or November 1.

3) Chicago Fire 
Current Points: 56 (45 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 59
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 2/5
Last Game: vs. D.C. United (10/27; 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network)

The Rundown: After winning seven of eight in late summer and fall, the Men in Red have dropped their last three of four. There is reason to be nervous but be glad the team is home and can still control their own destiny as it comes to earning a higher seed.

The Best Case: All it would take for the Fire to lock up second in the East is a win at home against D.C. on Saturday.

The Worst Case: New York will end its match with Philadelphia a half hour before kickoff at Toyota Park -- If the Red Bulls win and the Fire lose or draw against D.C. the team will at least be condemned to fourth place.

Then the team will point its eyes to Denver where Colorado hosts Houston (8pm CT) in the final match of the 2012 MLS regular season – if the Dynamo win with a Fire loss against DC, the Men in Red will fall to fifth and open up the postseason at Houston. If the Fire draw against D.C., they’ll remain fourth regardless of what happens in Colorado.  

4) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 54 (54 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 57
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 3/5
Last Game:  at Philadelphia (10/27; 12:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network)

The Rundown: New York will be disappointed to not have done more against Sporting KC in two huge home games towards the end of the season but will be happy to go into the final weekend with a playoff berth locked.

The Best Case:  Because the Fire and United play and are already ahead of New York, there is no way for Red Bull to finish higher than third. With that in mind, all they need to do is defeat Philadelphia to lock in third place and avoid the play-in game.

The Worst Case: A draw or less to Philadelphia and then Red Bull will also be watching the Houston/Colorado match closely that night. A Houston win would mean the Dynamo would at the very least host New York in the play-in game, while a draw or loss would mean Red Bull would host the Dynamo.

5) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 53 (48 GF)
Maximum Possible Points: 56
Highest/Lowest Possible Seed: 3/5
last Game:  at Colorado (10/27 8pm CT on Direct Kick/MLS Live)

The Rundown: Houston’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia Saturday night combined with D.C.’s victory over Columbus clinched the 2011 MLS Cup finalists a place back in the playoffs. Because of their appearance in last year’s championship match, the Dynamo also have to juggle the final group game of CONCACAF Champions League play this Wednesday when they welcome Honduran side Olimipa to BBVA Compass Stadium.

Luckily for the Dynamo, they need only a draw in the game to ensure advancement to the next round ahead of having to close out the regular season and fight for positioning in the East with a  match at altitude in Colorado.

The Best Case: The Dynamo could finish as high as third in the East if both New York and Chicago lose their games earlier in the day and Houston defeats Colorado.

The Worst Case: The Fire and Red Bull both win their earlier matches condemning the Dynamo to fifth and rendering the game that night at Colorado meaningless.  In that case, Houston would travel to D.C. United for the play-in game.

15 October 11:19 am

After taking a weekend off from MLS play, the Men in Red return to action when they head to Bean Town for their third match of the season against the New England Revolution on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 6:30 p.m. CT (NBC5.2/97.5 ESPN Deportes). With just two games remaining in the regular season, the Fire are still within reach of the Eastern Conference crown.
 
Midfielder Patrick Nyarko said that now that the Fire have officially clinched a spot in the playoffs, the focus will be on gaining the top seed in the conference. Missing the playoffs the past two seasons was “frustrating,” said Nyarko. “We should be a perennial playoff team.”
 
Dutch striker Sherjill MacDonald, who joined the team at the end of July, is destined to be a huge part of the Fire’s post-season run. Now that he has had time to settle in and get acclimated to the team and to the city, MacDonald says, “I’m very comfortable with this group. I’m very happy.”
 
One player who missed the dreary Chicago weather this weekend was Alvaro Fernadnez, who is with Uruguay for two World Cup Qualifiers. Flaco and Uruguay fell 3-0 to Argentina behind a Lionel Messi brace, and one writer finally put the Diego Maradona-Lionel Messi debate to bed. “Lionel Messi is not Diego Maradona,” said Zach Woosley. “In fact, he’s better…much better.”
 
Flaco and Uruguay have one more match this week when they take on Bolivia at Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, Bolivia on Oct. 16.

15 October 9:01 am

A lot has changed since my last Playoff Math entry. The team had just come off a disappointing 2-0 loss to Sporting KC while almost no other result in the East had gone the Fire’s way that weekend.  The team would follow the loss to KC up with a disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Philadelphia on Anniversary  Night before earning a solid 2-0 win at New York three days later.

It all goes to show that Playoff Math isn’t always foolproof but a good read nonetheless. With that here’s the latest update, also recognizing the field in the East is down to six teams with Montreal’s elimination last week…

1) Sporting KC (qualified)
Current Points: 59 (40 GF)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 65
Average Opponents Points: 44.5
Magic Number (for first place): 4
Remaining Schedule:  at New York (10/20), vs. Philadelphia (10/24).

The Rundown: Sporting KC took a potential blow to their first place bid by leaving two points on the field late at Crew Stadium last Sunday. KC still has the inside track to finishing top of the conference for the second straight season but will have to navigate a tricky match at Red Bull this week to get there. If they can earn another win in New York, they’’ all but clinch the top spot in the East, then needing only a win the following Wednesday home to Philadelphia.

2) Chicago Fire (qualified)
Current Points: 56 (45 GF)

Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 62
Average Opponents Points:  41. 5
Magic Number (to first place): 9
Remaining Schedule:   at New England (10/20), vs. D.C. United (10/27)

The Rundown: Despite falling in two of the last three matches, the Fire are in the playoffs and still find themselves with a reasonable shot at taking first in the East with the Sporting/Red Bull match looming this weekend. If Red Bull is able to win and the Fire can come away from New England victorious as well on Saturday, they’ll be even on points with first place Kansas City and actually ahead on the first tie breaker (goals for).

That scenario would almost assuredly just require a Fire win on the final of the season vs. DC United to lock down first place (Sporting KC would have make up 6+ goals on Philadelphia in order to jump over the Fire.

More incentive to keep in mind… Should the Fire win their final two games, they’ll at least finish third overall in the MLS standings, giving them a real shot at the CONCACAF Champions League should either Sporting KC or San Jose make MLS Cup.

3) D.C. United
Current Points: 54
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 60
Average Opponents Points: 52.5
Magic Number (to qualify): 2
Remaining Schedule:  vs. Columbus (10/20), at Chicago (10/27)

The Rundown: D.C. has the most difficult remaining schedule of the group but with them hosting sixth-place Columbus Saturday, can step into the playoffs with just a draw Saturday against the Crew.  With United facing the Fire on the final day of the season, D.C. has plenty of incentive to go for wins in both games in order to possibly finish with home field advantage in the first round. Should the Fire and Sporting KC completely collapse the Capital City club even has an outside shot at first in the East.  

4) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 53
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 59
Average Opponents Points: 47.5
Magic Number (to qualify): 3
Remaining Schedule:   vs. Sporting KC (10/20), at Philadelphia (10/27)

The Rundown: New York’s form the last four games combined with front office shake ups and chatter about head coach Hans Backe’s status for next year can’t fill a Red Bull fan full of confidence. Still, they control their own playoff destiny and can qualify as well as play spoiler this weekend with a win at home vs. Sporting KC.

With the Red Bulls going 10-0-3 through their first 13 matches this season at Red Bull Arena, both Sporting and the Fire found the chink in the armor there in recent weeks. Even still, New York remains 11-2-3 at home this year and shouldn’t be underestimated with their backs a bit against the wall on Saturday.

5) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 50
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 56
Average Opponents Points: 33.5
Magic Number: 6
Remaining Schedule:  vs. Philadelphia (10/20), at Colorado (10/27)

The Rundown: Despite having a reasonably easy schedule to close the 2012 campaign, Houston has made things sort of difficult on themselves down the stretch, going 1-1-1 in their last three matches all against sides outside of the playoff picture. Luckily, they still have the easiest schedule of all remaining playoff teams, hosting Philadelphia this weekend before visiting Colorado on the 27th.

With that high-altitude trip looming on the final day, the Dynamo would do well to take care of business Saturday against the Union where a win would necessitate just a draw on at the Rapids. A win Saturday combined with a Crew loss at DC would push Houston back into the playoffs for the second straight season.

6) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 49
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 55
Average Opponents Points: 38
Magic Number: 8
Remaining Schedule: at D.C. United (10/20), vs. Toronto FC (10/28)

The Rundown: Another late goal last Sunday at home vs. Sporting KC likely salvaged the Crew’s season, keeping the team within one point of fifth place Houston heading into a harrowing six-pointer Saturday at DC.

A victory keeps the team in the playoff hunt heading into the last match of the season, a very winnable home game vs. Toronto. A win plus a Houston draw or loss puts the Crew in the driver’s seat. They’ve played with nothing to lose since August, no reason they should stop now.

From a traveling fan perspective, all of Fire nation should want the Crew to sneak into the playoffs and the Fire to have a chance at them in the first round. 

This Week's Predictions:
New York Red Bulls 2, Sporting KC 1 
Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 0
D.C. United 1, Columbus Crew 1
Houston Dynamo 2, Philadelphia Union 1

If those hold true the standings coming out of the weekend would be...

1) x-Chicago - 59pts. (47 GF)
2) x-Sporting KC - 59pts. (41 GF)
3) x-New York - 56pts. (56 GF)
4) x-D.C. United - 55pts. (50 GF)
5) Houston - 53pts. (47 GF)
----------------------------------------
6) Columbus - 50pts. (41 GF)

Let's hope I'm right!

08 October 11:28 am

Gentlemen, start your playoff beards.
 
The Fire’s big 2-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls Saturday afternoon combined with the 1-1 draw between the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City Sunday ensured that the Men in Red would be participating in the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs.
 
With 56 points on the season, the Fire sit just three points behind conference-leading Sporting KC. Chicago Fire Confidential’s Guillermo Rivera took a look at the remaining schedules for each of top six teams in the Eastern Conference.   
 
Though MacDonald’s brace Saturday afternoon played a huge part in clinching a playoff berth, the former Dutch youth international said that he had “mixed feelings” after the victory as Wednesday night’s 3-1 loss to Philadelphia still weighed on his mind. “We should have played the same the same way as today against Philadelphia, and we would have won easily.”
 
Now that a playoff spot has been secured, German defender Arne Friedrich can look at the losses against Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia Union as a bit of a blessing in disguise. “I’m happy we lost before the playoffs start because in the playoffs there is no room for losing games.”
 
While the entire Fire squad played exceptionally well on Saturday, Friedrich and MacDonald led the team with Player Ratings of 8.
 
Is there a better way to celebrate the Fire’s return to post-season play than with 400 of your closest friends? The final count is in and the October 8th Anniversary Planning Committee announced that more than 400 attendees will celebrate the Fire’s 15th Anniversary at the Chicago History Museum Monday evening.

30 September 6:42 am

A 2-0 defeat at Sporting KC Friday; Red Bull defeat Toronto FC 4-1; Columbus takes advantage of an offside goal to earn another late win; The Dynamo overpower New England 2-0…

The Chicago Fire were about 11 minutes from having literally every result this weekend go against them before Portland’s Bright Dike roofed an effort past Bill Hamid to earn the Timbers a 1-1 home draw against D.C. United.

That result in Portland combined with the other four this weekend pushed the Fire down to third place (tied on points with New York) and just five points ahead of the sixth-place Crew with four matches remaining and just as many openings in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

HISTORICAL ANALYSIS

Fire and many other fans in the East deserve to be a little frustrated. The past few seasons it didn’t take this much to qualify for the playoffs.

Even with most teams having three to four games left in the season, total wins in the East are currently at 122, up from 88 which was the total through the end of 2011. Playoff team wins (or translated to last year, Top 5 team wins) total in at 76 right now over 59 through the end of 2011. More simply put, it took fifth place New York just 46 points to qualify for the postseason last year, while this year sixth place Columbus sits on 48 points and outside of the current playoff bubble.

WATCH:  Sporting KC 2, Chicago Fire 0

 

Make no mistake, all five teams that make it from the East will have earned it this season…

PLAYOFF MATH…I’ve added magic numbers to the breakdown this week. For a definition on what the magic number is in soccer, click here.

1) Sporting KC (qualified)
Current Points: 58
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home, 2 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 67
Average Opponents Points: 43.6
Magic Number (for first place): 8
Remaining Schedule:  at Columbus (10/7), at New York (10/20), vs. Philadelphia (10/24).

The Rundown: Sporting KC navigated their difficult stretch of three games in nine days about as perfectly as they could have expected. The team earned a valuable 2-0 win at New York on September 19, played strategically for a point at Montreal three days later and returned home on Friday to defeat the Fire, taking seven points from the three matches.

WATCH: New York Red Bulls 4, Toronto FC 1

 

The victory over Chicago on Friday not only opened up a somewhat comfortable five-point gap between first and second but also pushed KC back into the playoffs. They still have two tough games at Columbus who are 10-3-2 at home this season and fighting for their playoff lives and a trip back to New York, but if they can negotiate that two-game stretch as well as the three games before it, they shouldn’t have an issue finishing in poll-position in the East.

2) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 53 (tied with Fire, ahead on Goals For tiebreaker)
Games Remaining: 3 (2 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 62
Average Opponents Points: 47
Magic Number (playoffs): 5
Remaining Schedule:   vs. Chicago (10/6), vs. Sporting KC (10/20), at Philadelphia (10/27)

The Rundown: New York did what they needed to in taking a 4-1 victory over Toronto Saturday night. They face perhaps the toughest remaining schedule of anyone in the East, having to face both the Fire and Sporting KC, albeit at home, in back-to-back matches. The results of those two games will go a long towards determining where all three teams will finish.

How they qualify: Red Bull can qualify for the playoffs this week by defeating the Fire and having Columbus either lose or draw to Sporting KC (Sunday) or Houston lose to Montreal (Saturday).

3) Chicago Fire
Current Points: 53 (tied with New York)
Games Remaining: 4 (2 home, 2 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 65
Average Opponents Points:  40.75
Magic Number: 5
Remaining Schedule:   vs. Philadelphia (10/3), at New York (10/6), at New England (10/20), vs. D.C. United (10/27)

The Rundown: While it wasn’t what you wanted, there was nothing disastrous about Friday night’s result at Kansas City. One thing to remember is that the Fire hold a game in hand over everyone else in the playoff race and that game is made up this week with Wednesday’s clash vs. Philadelphia and Saturday’s match at New York.

If the Fire can manage to take at least four points from the week, they would almost assuredly have booked their place in the postseason and even three points would go a long way toward playoff qualification. Anything less and the team will have made things much more difficult than need be on themselves.

Luckily enough, Wednesday’s game comes against lowly Philadelphia who will be on one day less rest than the Fire and who haven’t beaten any of the top seven teams in the East away from home, going 0-6-0 in those games this season.

WATCH: D.C. United 1, Portland Timbers 1

 

While it’ll be expected for the Fire to take three points against the Union, the more difficult match will come Saturday against Red Bull. If the team gets a win against Philly, a draw would be ok to keep the Fire in position ahead of New York to push for second place in the East.

Keep in mind though, waking up Sunday morning is all the more reason to hope the Fire can earn just one more point than Red Bull as there’s little to no chance the team will win a tie-breaker with the high-flying New York offense.

How they qualify: The Fire can qualify for the playoffs in a variety of ways this week but at the very least need three points from their two matches vs. Philadelphia (Wednesday) and at New York (Saturday), combined with a Columbus loss or draw vs. Sporting KC (Sunday) or a Houston loss vs. Montreal (Saturday). Two wins in the two matches and the rest won’t matter as the Fire will have booked their ticket.

4) D.C. United
Current Points: 51
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home, 2 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 60
Average Opponents Points: 41
Magic Number: 7
Remaining Schedule:  at Toronto FC (10/6), vs. Columbus (10/20), at Chicago (10/27)

The Rundown: Given that it would have made for a three-way tie for second place, D.C. will be a bit disappointed not to have taken three points at Portland Saturday. Taking care of business at Toronto on Saturday will be most important for United as their final two matches look like they could be of the six-point variety.

How they qualify: They can’t this week. A win at Toronto and a Columbus loss this weekend won’t be good enough to get D.C. into the playoffs before the international break as it would only equal six “magic number” points.

WATCH: Columbus 3, Philadelphia 2

 

5) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 49
Games Remaining: 3 (2 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 58
Average Opponents Points: 33.3
Magic Number: 9
Remaining Schedule:  vs. Montreal (10/6), vs. Philadelphia (10/20), at Colorado (10/27)

The Rundown: Houston stumbled last weekend at Philadelphia and had a bit of trouble in the first half Saturday night vs. New England but eventually got the job done. The Dynamo undoubtedly still have the easiest schedule in the East, with their hardest game coming against Montreal on Saturday. The goal of every team ahead of Houston should at least be to finish with more than 58 points as that is the closest thing to a playoff point threshold that exists right now.

How they qualify: Won’t be able to think about qualification until at least October 20.

6) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 48
Games Remaining: 3 (32 home, 1 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 57
Average Opponents Points: 43.6
Magic Number: 10
Remaining Schedule:   vs. Sporting KC (10/7), at D.C. United (10/20), vs. Toronto FC (10/28)

The Rundown: The Crew did it again Saturday night, scoring another late winner, albeit one that was clearly offside. That doesn’t matter now as Columbus kept pace in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race.

The result was huge as the Crew will be facing the East’s top team in Sporting KC on Sunday before a certain six-pointer on October 20 at D.C. United. How they fare in these two games will go a long way to determining where they finish in the East but it seems a minimum of three points from the pair of matches will be absolutely necessary to stay alive going into their final game of the season vs. Toronto FC.

How they qualify: Would need a bit of help but could qualify on October 20.

7) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 40
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home, 2 away)
Maximum Possible Points: 49
Average Opponents Points: 32.3
Remaining Schedule: at Houston (10/6), at Toronto FC (10/20), vs. New England (10/27)

The Rundown: Idle this week, Montreal are only mathematically still in. To qualify, they would need a monumental collapse from either Houston or Columbus while the Impact would have to run the table to finish the season. Even a draw at Houston on Saturday will bring their season to an end.

28 September 9:02 am

When the Chicago Fire take on Sporting Kansas City on Friday night at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park at 7:30 p.m. CT (NBC Sports Network/97.5 ESPN Deportes), the Men in Red will not only be playing for the club’s first playoff spot in three seasons, they will also be fighting for first place in the highly-competitive Eastern Conference. CSNChicago.com’s Len Ziehm breaks down the Fire’s most important Major League Soccer game in “nearly five years.”
 
Yet as one of the few players with MLS playoff experience, forward Chris Rolfe as been trying to keep the team level headed. “You can’t get emotional about these games,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.
 
Since the start of the 2012 season, Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas and his technical staff have added seven new players. While all have played a significant part in the run to the post-season, perhaps none have been as influential as Rolfe. In his second stint with the Fire, Rolfe now leads the team with eight goals and two assists. In an in-depth piece interview by The Sporting News’ Brian Straus, Rolfe discusses his stint in Denmark and how returning to Chicago was a seamless transition. Straus perhaps puts it best when he says, “Rolfe needed Chicago, and Chicago needed Rolfe.”
 
Another midseason acquisition that has panned out for the Fire is Brazilian midfielder Alex, who hasn’t missed a beat since stepping in for the injured Pavel Pardo, and brings “a little bit of unpredictability” to the Fire midfield.  
 
On the flip side, the success of Rolfe and his strike partner Sherjill MacDonald has relegated speedy Ghanaian forward Dominic Oduro to a reserve role. While Oduro may be a little disappointed with his lack of playing time, he told the Chicago Tribune that he respects the coach’s decision and just has to “be as professional as possible about it and keep [his] head up.”
 
Along with the offensive success, the Fire surely wouldn’t be up for the Eastern Conference crown without the solid play of the defensive unit. Since his debut on May 4, Austin Berry has been a constant, steady presence along the Fire’s backline and NBC Sports’ Steve Davis says that he is “almost ready to call” Berry as the winner of the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year crown.
 
Davis isn’t the only person to notice that Berry has put together an impressive season. In the latest edition of MLSsoccer.com’s Rookie Rankings, Berry once again reigned supreme and lead the pack as the top rookie in the league.  
 
Before tonight’s match, check out MLSsoccer.com’s Three for Thursday for a look at the battle off the pitch between Chicago and Kansas City.
 
So don’t miss the marquee matchup of the season and tune-in to the NBC Sports Network tonight at 7:30 p.m. CT to see if your Men in Red can overtake Sporting Kansas City for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

27 September 9:21 pm

The Fire travel to LiveStrong Sporting Park on Friday night to face Sporting KC (LIVE 7:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network) in a game which could go a long way toward determining who wins the Eastern Conference crown. Both teams are playing well and it has all the makings of a classic. Here are a few things to watch out for from a tactical perspective...

Balls over the top: Fire defenders beware

Sporting KC have a tendency to look for balls into space behind the opposing teams outside defenders and the Fire will need to be wary of this tactic Friday night. KC attackers such as Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong all like to make these runs which often drag a central defender out of position to cover, leaving space in the middle for the other attackers to move into.

 

PREVIEW: Fire vs. Sporting KC

 

 

The difficult part about defending these through balls is the fact that they can come from anywhere. In KC's last home match against Houston, it wasn't just midfielders like Roger Espinoza playing the balls into space but the defenders were getting in on the act, too.

Though he has played extremely well over the past month or so, Jalil Anibaba can sometimes stray too far forward which leaves space in behind him for players to run into and exploit. On the other side of the field, left back Gonzalo Segares also needs to be cautious.

High pressure: harass KC

In the Fire's past few matches, the team's policy of applying pressure to the opposition high up the field has been very effective. Not only does the pressure offer up the opportunity for a turnover, but it also disrupts the other team’s attacking rhythm.

In KC's last game away to Montreal, the Impact used the high pressure tactic and caused all sorts of problems for the away side. I look for the likes of Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko to be pressuring the KC players all night when they are in possession.

In the absence of Pavel Pardo, Alex has excelled in his new holding midfield position and his energy in the center of the park will be needed against Sporting KC. If he can also use his pace to pressure the KC midfield without straying too far out of position, it will be crucial to the Fire's chances of coming away with points.

Playoff atmosphere: keeping a cool head

There is so much riding on Friday night’s match and both teams know what is a stake, which is all the more reason for the Fire players to keep cool heads throughout the game. Kansas City has a tendency to get riled up very easily, starting with their coach, Peter Vermes. Players such as Kai Kamara and Michael Harrington also can get very emotional on the pitch, especially if they feel calls are not going their way.

With this in mind, I'm sure Frank Klopas has reiterated to his players not to let their emotions get the better of them in this high pressure game. For the most part, the Fire haven't had any problems with this aspect of their game this season but in a match of such importance where there isn't much between the teams, keeping your head can mean the difference between a positive and negative result.

Scoring first: stopping the bad habit

Though not necessarily a tactical point, a worrying trait that many would like to see addressed is reversing the trend of giving up the first goal.

This season, the Fire have gone a goal behind in games much too often for the coaches, fans and players liking. Though the team has often come back to tie the game and gone on to win it in many cases, sooner or later giving up the first goal is going to come back to haunt the Men in Red.

Clearly there is no one reason for going behind in so many games this season but if the team can reverse that trend it will make everyone happy. In the regular season to date, the Fire have only kept five clean sheets, the last of which came 11 games ago (1-0 July 14 vs. Vancouver). A clean sheet away from home Friday against Sporting KC would be a fantastic achievement.

Prediction: 1-0. Nyarko scores and Fire keep first clean sheet in 11 games to move into first place in the East.

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.

24 September 10:51 am

After Sunday, D.C. United continued to move up the Eastern Conference table even without Dwayne DeRosario, earning a 1-0 home win over Chivas USA. The shock result of the weekend likely came earlier in the day as Houston dropped a 3-1 decision at lowly Philadelphia, leaving them just one point above sixth place Columbus for the final playoff spot in the East.

Seeing as I broke down each team’s remaining schedules prior to Sunday’s two matches, I won’t do it again here… Refer to that blog for an almost up-to-date breakdown.  

Instead today’s edition of Playoff Math will be shorter and potentially sweeter as I focus on “Magic Numbers”…

I’ve come to find out that with three variations of a result, “Magic Numbers” in soccer are more difficult to come by than in baseball, basketball or football. but I felt it part of my duties as Team Writer to work out just how close the Fire (and the rest of the East) are to playoff qualification.

To be clear, the “Magic Numbers” below do not reflect the number of points a team needs to earn but rather, the number of points a team needs to gain combined with the number of points the sixth place team (right now Columbus) needs to drop. In the Crew’s case, it’s in comparison to fifth place Houston.

As an example, the Fire could achieve their magic number of five by winning Friday night at Sporting KC (3 points) and then have Columbus lose (drop 3 points) or draw with Philadelphia (drop 2 points).  

Also find the "Soonest Could Clinch" column which is pretty self-explanatory. It's factored by taking into account the date a team could gain maximum points and have the sixth place team no longer able to catch them.

Make sense?  Here’s the table…

Team Games Left Points Max. Points Magic Number Soonest Could Clinch
Sporting KC 4 55 67 3 9/28
Chicago Fire 5 53 68 5 9/29
NY Red Bulls 4 50 62 8 10/7
D.C. United 4 50 62 8 10/7
Houston Dynamo 4 46 58 12 10/7
Columbus Crew 4 45 57 13 10/20

The only other team that can clinch qualification this week is of course Sporting, who simply need a victory over the Fire or a draw and Columbus defeat to book their ticket to the postseason.

Not that you need much more reason to tune into the Fire’s game at Sporting KC Friday at 7:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network but it could end up being one of the biggest games of the season…