After beating Toronto 2-1 on Wednesday night, the Fire face Canadian opposition again on Saturday, hosting for the first time Montreal at Toyota Park (LIVE 7:30pm CT on CSN Chicago). Winning games that you don't play well in is the sign of a good team and the Fire certainly showed that against TFC.
Montreal is still fighting to sneak into the MLS Cup Playoffs but the Fire haven't lost to an Eastern Conference foe at home for over two years. Here are some things to look out for in Saturday night’s game:
WATCH: CLB 2, MTL 1 (9/1/2012)
Montreal's formation: back 3 or back 4?
Montreal manager Jesse Marsch has experimented with both a back three and back four this season. When fit, Nelson Rivas, Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari serve as the first choice defenders and you would be hard pressed to find a more experienced trio in all of MLS. The trio has hundreds of Serie A matches under their belt.
In Montreal's last game they played a back four system away against Columbus and I think we will see the same on Saturday night as the Fire's attacking ability and willingness to push the outside defenders up in support of the wingers would cause big problems for a three back setup.
Experienced defenders = lack of pace
Whenever an opposing team is asked about the Fire, the first aspect of the team's game that every coach and player talks about is "pace." Montreal's defenders may have all the experience in the world but with the Fire they come up against a team that has the ability to beat them with speed.
In his last two games, Patrick Nyarko has used his pace to devastating effect, blowing by the Houston defense to score after less than a minute and forcing the Toronto back line into making mistakes by applying pressure high up the field. Nyarko was also very dangerous on the break, especially after Toronto set pieces.
Patrick played very high up the field against TFC on Wednesday, almost as a third striker, and I think that will continue against the Impact.
Felipe - the often overlooked danger man
In attack, Montreal have two excellent wingers in Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp. For the past decade, both players have consistently helped their teams by scoring goals but more importantly netting assists.
WATCH: CHI 2, TOR 1 (9/12/2012)
For the Impact, both play in the wide positions and distract from Felipe who is more central. He can fade in and out of games but he is very capable of providing a killer assist. Philadelphia were so concerned about his attacking threat that they man marked him for the entire match. I don't think the Fire will follow suit, but they cannot solely focus on the wide men and neglect Filipe.
Fire offense: finish your chances
In the game against TFC on Wednesday night, the Men in Red were once again guilty of missing too many excellent goal scoring opportunities. Those misses made the game a lot closer than it should have been, especially after TFC pulled it back to 2-1 in the second half.
Pavel Pardo and Sherjill MacDonald were both guilty of missing after going 1v1 against TFC 'keeper, Milos Kocic. Obviously not every chance will result in a goal but I would expect that coach Frank Klopas was stressing the importance of taking your chances to the players this week.
With the playoff race in the Eastern Conference so tight, a goal or two here and there could be the difference between coming 1st and 3rd in the final standings.
Prediction: 2-0 Fire. Frank Klopas' side take their sixth win in seven matches with goals from MacDonald and Nyarko.
Despite a plethora of chances, the Fire didn’t make things easy on themselves Wednesday night in Toronto. Going up 2-0 with goals from Alvaro Fernandez and Chris Rolfe before halftime, the Fire had plenty of chances but couldn’t put Toronto out of its misery with a third goal.
Eric Hassli’s 79th minute strike and Toronto’s constant pressure late kept things interesting but Frank Klopas’ side found away to lock things down at the back and grind out another important three points on the road.
Ugly as it may have been at times, at the end of the day, Frank Klopas’ side still came away with a valuable away win and catapulted itself into second place in the East. The team now sits even on games played (27) and one point ahead (47) of the New York Red Bulls (46).
Heading into Saturday’s game vs. Montreal, there’s a chance the Fire could sit atop the East by the end of the weekend.
WEEKEND PLAYOFF IMPLICATION SCHEDULE
Sporting KC vs. Houston Dynamo – 7:30pm CT (NBC Sports Network)
New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew – 6:00pm CT (MLS Live, Direct Kick)
D.C. United vs. New England – 6:30pm CT (MLS Live, Direct Kick)
Chicago Fire vs. Montreal Impact – 7:30pm CT (CSN Chicago)
Let’s put things in perspective…
WATCH: Sporting KC 0, Houston 0 (7/7/2012)
One of two huge matches in the East this weekend is Friday’s nights encounter between first-place Sporting KC and fourth-place Houston at LiveSTRONG Sporting Park.
If Kansas City, who are just a surprising 4-3-3 at home vs. East teams loses, it sets the Fire up for a move to first on Saturday night. If that happened, the Dynamo could also potentially jump all the way into second place (at least momentarily) as well.
Lucky for the home side, Houston’s away form against the Conference has been quite poor (1-5-4), though one of those four draws did come at Sporting on July 7 (0-0).
The obvious hope for the Fire is to see the Dynamo earn their second away win against the East Friday night but I think anything more than a point for Houston is unrealistic.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 1, Houston Dynamo 1
- Further East on Saturday, third-place New York welcomes the Columbus Crew to Red Bull Arena. I wrote recently that I wasn’t yet convinced about the Crew’s surge up the East table because of the level of opponents they’d played during their run and in their last match, they fell 2-0 at New England.
In Saturday’s game, they travel to play a New York side that is unbeaten at home this season (9-0-3) and hasn’t even drawn against an East opponent at Red Bull Arena (7-0-0). Interestingly enough, at 4-6-4, Columbus has a much better away record than Houston and has gone 3-5-2 away in the conference, including a victory over Sporting KC.
Even with all that, it’s hard to go against New York’s home dominance this season. As it relates to the Fire, a draw would be a fantastic result for a few reasons but I have to think Red Bull comes away victorious this weekend.
PREDICTION: New York Red Bulls 2, Columbus Crew 1
WATCH: New York 4, Columbus 1 (4/7/2012)
- Sixth place D.C. United hosts New England Saturday night at RFK Stadium in a match where all three points will be quite necessary for the home side.
Most of MLS was in shock Thursday morning with the club’s announcement that captain Dwayne DeRosario had suffered an MCL sprain that will keep him out 10-12 weeks, effectively ending his season.
Even still, United (41) sit one point back of the final playoff spot, even without DeRo are better than New England and much like Red Bull, have fantastic form at RFK this season, going 9-1-4 overall and 7-1-3 against Eastern opponents.
While New England bounced back with a home win against Columbus before the international break, their away record is abysmal (1-10-2; 0-7-2 in the East) and I suspect their skid down the East table continues Saturday night.
PREDICTION: D.C. United 2, New England Revolution 0
- In the last Eastern match of the night, the Fire will know exactly what they have to do to move into first place or retain second place by halftime against Montreal.
If all the predicted results above hold and the Fire win oer the Impact, they'd stay in second place but sit just one point back of East-leading KC.
The Fire’s home form this season (9-2-2; 7-0-1 vs. East) combined with Montreal’s away record (2-11-1; 2-6-1 vs. East) certainly favor the Men in Red in this match, though Klopas’ side will be coming off just three days rest while the Impact will not have played in two weeks.
Also remember that while the first-year MLS side is just three points out of the final playoff spot, they only have five games remaining while almost everyone above has seven.
A loss for Montreal on Saturday would come as close as could be to effectively end the Impact’s bid for a playoff place in their first MLS season.
PREDICTION: Saturday night will certainly be a battle but I think the Fire take their 10th home win of the season and move within one point of first in the East with a 2-1 victory (what other score line is there?) over Montreal.
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.
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 ...
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."