The Fire won back-to-back away games and scored six goals. They sit in a playoff position and control their own fate with two games remaining. Juan Luis Anangono is heating up. Mike Magee is so hot he’s scoring goals by accident. Sean Johnson is playing like, and being recognized as, one of the four or five best American goalies. Jeff Larentowicz is owning midfields. Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry are two of only three MLS players who’ve played every single minute so far this season and their defensive relationship is finally solidifying. There’s real depth on the outside and through the middle (where captain Logan Pause and summer standout Daniel Paladini are working to get past Alex and Arevalo Rios).
That’s the general view right now. The squad is playing up to their potential and the depth is supporting them. The competition for spots is pushing everyone harder, and the depth is allowing Frank Klopas to cover for injuries, international duty (Rios, Lindpere), or to go with the hotter player (Anangono over Chris Rolfe).
In other words, things are shaping up nicely. The general feeling is a good one, momentum is building, the Twitter trolls have returned to their caves, and it’s hard to fend off enticing thoughts like, you know those lower-seeded teams that barrel into the playoffs and scare everyone because they’re playing with momentum and confidence? What if the Fire can be that team?
All season long, the Fire’s major problem was consistency. They were infuriatingly inconsistent from game to game and, indeed, from half to half. Maybe it was a focus thing, maybe it was a changing personnel thing, who knows. But now the Fire are managing games better. They’re attacking straight from the beginning. They’re pressuring the ball all over the field. They’re getting crucial two-goal advantages and defending well enough to hold on to them.
We saw all that last week in D.C., where a super high defensive line pushed the Fire team way up the field to pressure United players into mistakes that led to chances and goals. We saw the same thing in Dallas on Saturday night. Alex, especially, was way up the field in the first half, never letting the Dallas players play the ball comfortable in their own half. (Magee, Anangono, Patrick Nyarko, and Dilly Duka deserve credit too.) How many shots did the Fire have at the top of the Dallas box in the first 30 minutes? It was harassment.
So just like in DC, a high defensive line and concentrated pressure led to a 2-0 first half lead. But just like in DC, we saw where it could be dangerous. We saw the team pay the price of so much early pressure, with Nyarko tweaking a hamstring and the rest of the team almost running out of gas late in the second half. We also saw how pushing too eagerly can be scary:
But I like this high pressure because it fits the moment, with the Fire desperately needing these results to make the playoffs. There are just two games left and the Fire have to prove their potentially newfound consistency beyond the past two away wins. They have to show the urgency and the commitment and the work rate into the next two games, too. Klopas's high risk and high pressure tactic fits.
It's a great moment: After all the work and all the struggle, suddenly the players’ quality shines through. Suddenly everybody trusts each other. Goals and points happen. Anibaba scores a stunner. Other teams hit the posts.
I don't know about predicting anything against Toronto and New York. But if we keep seeing the Fire play as they have these past two games, they'll get to play a few more.
Bet you didn't see that title coming two weeks ago did you?
While much of MLS sat idle this weekend, teams in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race nearly played a full slate with perhaps the Fire coming away as the biggest winners from the weekend’s results.
A look at where the race stands heading into the final two weeks of the season...
x - 1) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 53 (15-9-8)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: DDWWW (11pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 10-2-4 / 5-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 59
Average Opponents Pts: 47.0
Remaining Schedule: 10/20 @ HOU, 10/27 vs. CHI
Rundown: New York sat idle this weekend, letting the rest of the Eastern Conference catch up to them on games played. Already qualified for the playoffs, Red Bull will be watching the Cascadia clash between Seattle and Portland closely Sunday night as it will have significant implications on the Supporters Shield race.
Red Bull will certainly be in the mix for their first true silverware the last two weeks of the season but with so many teams still in contention for the hardware, Fire fans shouldn’t expect New York to put out a weaker lineup on the last day of the season.
A win this week vs. Houston would at the very least lock up a top two finish in the East for New York while a loss would make things very interesting…
x - 2) Sporting KC
Current Points: 52 (15-10-7)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5: DWLWW (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-5-3 / 7-5-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 31
Remaining Schedule: 10/18 vs. D.C., 10/23 vs. OLI**, 10/26 @ PHI
Rundown: Sporting KC could have controlled their own destiny for the top spot in the East if they would have won out but Wednesday’s draw at Houston means they’ve relinquished that opportunity to New York.
Still, Sporting welcomes D.C. United this weekend and will no doubt be in the equation for both that top spot and potentially the Supporters Shield race on the final day of the season.
By virtue of the draw between Philadelphia and D.C. United Saturday, they also locked down a playoff berth. A win Saturday vs. D.C. and Sporting will lock in a top two finish in the East.
3) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 48 (13-10-9)
Games Remaining: 1 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: DWWWL (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-3-4 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 56
Average Opponents Pts: 34.5
Remaining Schedule: 10/20 vs. NY, 10/24 @ AU**, 10/27 @ D.C.
Rundown: The midweek draw vs. Sporting KC cooled off the Dynamo’s hot streak just a bit, leaving them exposed to a potential drop in the standings at the weekend. Fortunately for Houston, Montreal fell to New England and the Dynamo are still in with a small chance for a top of the East finish.
With three games in eight days to end the season, the Dynamo have a huge week ahead of them beginning Saturday vs. New York.
How the qualify this week: A win over New York combined with a Philadelphia loss or draw to Montreal or a win over New York combined with a Philadelphia draw/win and a Chicago loss or draw to Toronto FC.
4) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 46 (13-11-7)
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home/ 2 away)
Last 5 Games: LLDLL (1pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-4-3 / 4-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 56
Average Opponents Pts: 39
Remaining Schedule: 10/16 @ LA, 10/19 vs. PHI, 10/26 @ TFC
Rundown: Oh how the mighty have fallen. Long holders of the Eastern Conference top spot the first half of the season, Montreal are now winless in their last five following Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to New England.
Montreal still hold a game in hand over the rest of the East but make that up with a tough midweek match Wednesday at LA. In that game the Impact will be down two starters in Matteo Ferrari and Davy Arnaud due to yellow card accumulation while Landon Donovan returns to the Galaxy from U.S. Men’s National Team duty.
A loss in that match and Montreal will officially be in the dog fight for one of the knockout playoff spots and will have to recover quickly as they’ll host fellow contender Philadelphia three days later.
How they qualify this week: Two wins vs. LA and Philadelphia is the simplest way but a combined four points with the win coming against Philadelphia along with either a New England loss/draw to Columbus or a Fire loss to Toronto FC.
5) Chicago Fire
Current Points: 46 (13-12-7)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: WWDLW (10pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 9-4-3 / 4-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 52
Average Opponents Pts: 39.5
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 vs. TFC, 10/27 @ NY
Rundown: Following the disappointing 2-2 draw to Montreal on September 28, naysayers said the Fire should give up on the season and “play the kids” with only home game remaining out of their final four.
Two weeks later, they've won two straight MLS games for the first time since early July and both of them came on the road. Naysayers…
Now above the red line and tied on points with Montreal (and Philadelphia), the Fire are actually in a position where they could clinch a playoff berth this weekend and still have the possibility to finish in the East’s top three spots, something that would have been unthinkable back in mid-May.
With two games left, the Fire control their own playoff destiny and after two confidence boosting victories, have a very winnable game in Saturday's home finale vs. Toronto FC.
How they qualify this week: A Chicago win over Toronto FC combined with a Philadelphia loss vs. Montreal and a New England loss or draw vs. Columbus.
With the Chicago and Philadelphia even on points, how would this work you ask? If the Fire won and Union lost, couldn’t they still catch the Fire on points? Yes, but they would only tie Chicago and the Fire would already have a two-game edge in the first tie breaker which is total wins.
With both Montreal/Philadelphia and New England/Columbus ending before the Fire/TFC game, Saturday could be a very special night at Toyota Park. Get your tickets!
6) Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 46 (12-10-10)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: DWWLL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-4-5 / 5-6-5
Maximum Possible Points: 52
Average Opponents Pts: 49
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 @ MTL, 10/26 vs. SKC
Rundown: For two weeks in a row, Philadelphia have needed a very late goal to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot. On Saturday though Jack McInerney’s strike was only good enough to equalize with lowly D.C. United, meaning the Union missed out on a huge opportunity to gain crucial points ahead of what will be two tough matches at Montreal and vs. Sporting KC to end the season.
How they qualify this week: Even if Philadelphia beats Montreal (and the Impact have lost to LA at midweek) and the Fire and Revolution both lose to Toronto and Columbus respectively, Philly would still need to get a point in the final week against Sporting KC.
7) New England Revolution
Current Points: 45 (12-11-9)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: WDDWL (8pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-5-4 / 5-7-4
Maximum Possible Points: 51
Average Opponents Pts: 41
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 vs. CLB, 10/27 @ CLB
Rundown: New England bounced back well from a disappointing 2-2 draw last week at New York, earning a valuable 1-0 away win in Montreal but still find themselves in a difficult spot after the Fire win in Dallas and Philly’s last gasp draw in D.C.
An odd home-and-home series with Columbus (who are now all but out of the playoff race) will help determine their playoff fate but even if they win both matches to close the season, they’ll need help in the form of two teams above them dropping points. With Montreal, Chicago and Philadelphia all just one point ahead and the Impact and Union facing each other this week, New England still has plenty to play for.
8) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 41 (12-15-5)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: LWWWL (9pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 7-6-3 / 5-9-2
Maximum Possible Points: 47
Average Opponents Pts: 42
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 @ NE, 10/27 vs. NE
Rundown: The Revolution and Fire wins as well as the Union draw pretty much put to bed the Crew’s hopes for the postseason. It’s not that they’re mathematically out, it’s just that it’s damn near improbable that all the results that would need to go Columbus’ way would.
It’s not even worth getting into with two weeks left but if they can play a little spoiler and win at New England this weekend and are still in the hunt on the final day, I’ll explain it next week.
Select shots from the Fire's 3-2 win over FC Dallas, presented by MiAllstate.
CREDIT: USA Today Sports Images
Chicago Fire midfielders Joel Lindpere and Egidio Arevalo Rios won't be in Dallas this weekend as they've joined up with the Estonian and Uruguayan national teams respectively for FIFA World Cup qualifying matches.
Lindpere and Estonia have already been eliminated from contention to qualify for Brazil 2014 but coming off one of the biggest results in the nation's history last month (2-2 draw vs. Holland), they'll be looking to play spoiler as they welcome Turkey to Tallinn Friday afternoon (1:30pm CT).
On 13 points, the Turkish side sits one back of Hungary for the second place playoff spot in UEFA Group D, level with Estonia's Tuesday opponents Romania who visit lowly Andorra on Friday.
Arevalo Rios and Uruguay's position in CONMEBOL qualifying is much more intriguing. Uruguay and Ecuador sit tied on points at 22 with the two nations set to play Friday afternoon in Quito (4pm CT on beINSport Espanol). The winner of the match looks certain to have a leg up on the fourth and final automatic qualifying bid out of South America with one round of matches to play.
Getting a win in Ecuador will be most crucial for Uruguay who sit fifth because of the goal difference tie breaker and because they'll close out qualifying with a home match against group leaders Argentina while Ecuador will face Chile Tuesday in Santiago.
After getting the job done in DC last Friday night, the Fire head south to take on a FC Dallas side needing a miracle to make the MLS Cup playoffs Saturday night (7pm CT My50/TWC Wisconsin). Dallas are in free fall and despite the Fire’s record in Texas, the Men in Red should be settling for nothing less than three points. Here are some things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective.
Perez away on Panama duty
Blas Perez has all the characteristics of an elite CONCACAF striker: finishing ability, gamesmanship and non-stop focus; similar to Carlos Ruiz. So perhaps it’s a good thing that the Dallas’s leading goal scorer is away for Panama’s crucial World Cup qualifying match with Mexico this weekend.
Perez has 11 goals on the year, with his closest teammate being Kenny Cooper at four. In Perez’s absence, it’s hard to see Dallas switching way from their lone striker formation and Cooper would seem the likely candidate to slot in after ending his nearly five-month goal scoring drought last weekend vs. RSL.
Cooper is a powerful forward that has historically done well against the Fire, tallying six goals in 12 career matches. With a goal last weekend under his belt and Dallas fighting for their playoff lives, he won’t be one to take lightly.
Focusing on Jackson – the Brazilian is instrumental in the Hoops’ attack
Jackson has impressed me in Dallas’s most recent matches against Columbus and RSL. He normally operates on the right wing, trying to get the ball inside to Perez or a midfield runner. In the last match against RSL, Jackson drifted inside more often.
This was in part due to the fact that RSL had a man sent off early after a disgraceful tackle on the Brazilian. He also showed that he can be a threat in the box, forcing Nick Rimando into a brilliant 1v1 save after an attempted flick over the keeper with the outside of his foot.
In last week’s match against DC, the Fire played a very open style of play in the first half, attacking in numbers. If you only looked at the score line, you would think that this tactic was a success but it could’ve been a lot different if it wasn’t for Sean Johnson. He bailed his team out with some brilliant saves after DC caught the Fire out with too many players forward.
It is understandable that the Fire will play in a similar fashion against Dallas due to the need for three points but allowing a player like Jackson time and space on a counter attack can be very dangerous.
Singling out Kellyn Acosta – targeting the Homegrown wingback
In their most recent home loss to Columbus, FC Dallas were exposed on the wings, most notably on the left where Dominic Oduro torched Zach Loyd. On the right, FC Dallas Homegrown player Kellyn Acosta also looked vulnerable. His distribution out of the back was poor; with the 18-year-old trying to play one-touch passes too often.
Columbus clearly targeted Acosta, with players such as Federico Higuain running at the defender whenever possible. A tactic that I would like to see on Saturday night is a constant switching of the Fire wide players so that Acosta is never comfortable.
If Fire wingers Nyarko, Duka, Alex and Co. can get into 1v1 or 2v1 situations with Acosta, it could pay dividends for the Men in Red.
Prediction: The Fire won’t play as open as last weekend but score early and late. 2-0 Fire with goals from Magee and Alex
Freddie Christiano has been a Fire fan since the club’s inaugural 1998 season and counts Piotr Nowak, Zach Thornton and Sean Johnson as his favorite Fire players of all-time.
Fans spoke loud and clear to determine the winning design and Christiano became more than just a fan on Tuesday night as his design, which garnered a majority of the fan vote, was unveiled as the #cf97ThirdKit winner at the club’s 16th Anniversary Party at Toyota Park. I caught up with Freddie on Wednesday to get the lowdown on how it felt to see his design become a part of club history.
JC: You probably had a little tension going to the party last night. How did you approach the announcement?
FC: I was really nervous because I was up against quality designs – one being the [light blue] kit that I know a lot of fans really wanted to see and the white one which definitely would have fit in with what the Fire have going on with their home and away kits right now.
JC: So, Logan Pause and Gonzalo Segares lift the drape over the design and you see it’s yours… Describe the euphoria.
FC: At that moment I didn’t even know what I was thinking. I was super relieved that it was over and that my jersey was up there. It meant a lot because I worked hard on it and knowing that it got chosen against those other two quality designs meant the Fire community really dug it. Playing soccer and following the Fire – when you can’t be out on the field as a player, I think this might be the next best thing to be a part of the team forever.
JC: While your design isn’t straight up “Municipal Chicago” it does have some more subtle marks to pay homage to the city. One mark is the skyline element on the back of the shirt… Explain it for more clarity.
FC: The stripe on the front was a representation of the Chicago flag colors with the blue and white stripes and when it wraps around it makes a silhouette of the Sears [Willis] Tower.
JC: How much has your phone been buzzing since the announcement?
FC: Friends and family that voted, I got a million text messages from them. A lot of tweets and new followers on my Twitter account, random Facebook friends – it was a cool feeling to get that response from people.
JC: Along with the prize of having your design chosen, you’ve also won a trip to Portland to see the Fire play the Timbers in 2014, as well as a shopping spree at the adidas store out there. I hear you’re getting married in June, what if the game clashes with the wedding date?
FC: I don’t really know what I’d choose there! I’m taking my fiancé to Portland with me but if they’re on the same weekend, that’d be a tough one. I don’t know how that’d work. If it does clash, maybe I’ll alternate and go to the All-Star Game instead.
Select shots from the club's 16th anniversary party and #cf97ThirdKit unveiling.
CREDIT: Nick Sintich, Chicago Fire
When the Chicago History Museum reached out to the Fire to take part in an even commemorating the "Great Chicago Fire" of 1871 Tuesday, I thought it was a great idea.
Even better was when I was asked to join Fire midfielder Brendan King (who is currently on the mend with a hamstring injury) to take part and tell why October 8 is not only significant to the city of Chicago but also to our club.
So there I was, notes prepared to discuss the events of 1871 and 1997 with the assembled group of third and fourth graders. Brendan, the professional soccer player, was there to field the tougher questions about you know being a professional soccer player but not before this fantastic photo-op with Mrs. O'Leary's Cow...
Joined by a representative from the Chicago Fire Department, we stepped to the stage in front of the mass of elementary school children and the first question went to us...
Was it about the history of the Fire?
No. Rather it was, "How many games have you won this year?"
Both Brendan and I couldn't get the words out fast enough to say, "We've won 12 so far and we just beat D.C. United 3-0 on Friday!"
A loud applause emanated from the crowd!
But then something happened. Husky looking men dressed in black and yellow regalia strolled up the aisle way. Were they members of the Columbus Crew coming to crash the party?
A closer look saw them carrying axes and other tools... Ah shoot, they must be actual firemen...
These guys were dressed in their full uniform and you could tell they've carried a room before... I leaned to Brendan and said, "I wonder if we get another question this entire panel?"
After about 26 questions relating to smoke inhalation and whether you should run or crawl out of a fire, Sparky, who was late arriving to one of two Sweet 16 parties for himself today, finally showed up and regained the room for the club! Way to go Sparky!
With some attention back on the club, Brendan and I finally received the question we'd been waiting for from an astute child in the front row: "Why do you call yourselves the Fire?"
- HISTORY: Why we're named the Chicago Fire...
Let's just say we hit it out of the park, mesmerizing the gathered youths with the story of our launch on this day 16 years ago at Navy Pier and telling them how our club tied itself to the city's history from day one.
Of course, young children have short attention spans so we got asked the question a few more times but it was all to drive the message of the Fire's tie to the city of Chicago home.
What a great event! Thanks to the Chicago History Museum for asking us to take part!
PHOTO CREDIT: Chicago History Museum/James Warden