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05 October 9:57 am

With the Chicago Fire chasing their first post-season berth since 2009, MLSsoccer.com’s Simon Borg says that the Fire vs. New York Red Bulls match on Saturday, Oct. 6 at 2:30 p.m. (NBC/97.5 ESPN Deportes) is the most meaningful match between the two clubs since 2000.
 
MLSsoccer.com’s Three for Thursday took a look at the top three previous matches between the Fire and New York.
 
Prior to Saturday’s match, Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko and defender Austin Berry took part in a Google + Hangout to discuss the match and answer some quirky fan questions.
 
While no one wants to dwell on the 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union Wednesday evening, it was a special night as the club celebrated its 15th Anniversary by welcoming back Fire legends Chris Armas, Peter Nowak and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who were honored at halftime.  
 
Armas said that under Frank Klopas’ tutelage, the Fire now seem like the Fire squads of old. “It’s an honest, hardworking, passionate group. It has team written all over it.”
 
In honor of the 15th Anniversary, the Fire teamed up with Bumpy Pitch, the authorities on the  soccer lifestyle, to create a limited edition t-shirt that features the Municipal Device, an iconic symbol of Chicago.
 
The shirts are available at the Chicago Fire Fan shop and on www.bumpypitch.com with $5 benefitting the Chicago Fire Foundation.
 
While everyone is amped for Saturday’s showdown with the Red Bulls, it will be extra special for rookie defender Austin Berry as he will celebrate his 24th birthday on Oct. 6. The club recently teamed up with Quaker Oats to create a special Life cereal box in an effort to garner attention for Berry as the chase for the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year crown heats up.

PR and marketing guru Joe Favorito called the campaign “a great example of old school grassroots outreach, smart and effective partner activation…a great gauntlet to be thrown down for MLS best practices.”
 
The #Berry4ROY cereal box also made its way to the small screen, where it made its TV debut on Windy City Live (11:25 mark).
 
Make sure you tune in to the marquee matchup of the weekend as your Men in Red take on the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, Oct. 6 at 2:30 p.m. CT on NBC and check out this promo video to hold you over until then.

04 October 4:37 pm

On Tuesday, the final three players of the #Fire15 list presented by TrueCar were unveiled. Like any list that involves a bit of democracy, there was a bit of good debate who or who shouldn’t have been included among the players deemed the top 15 in club history. Having voted multiple times myself this past summer, I don’t think I ever came back with the same 15 players…

With that in mind, I thought it appropriate to take a look at seven guys that you could make a strong case to be in the 15.

Hristo Stoitchkov – One of two players on my Fire15 list back in July that didn’t make the final tally, Stoitchkov was perhaps the most high profile player ever to wear the Fire badge when he was in Chicago from 2000-02. The “Mad Bulgarian” known for his exploits with his country at the 1994 World Cup and Barcelona would go on to record 24 goals and 22 assists in 71 matches, starting only 40.

The legendary attacker scored a number of highlight reel goals but his most important would come when he tallied the first goal in the team’s 2-1 win over Miami to clinch its second U.S. Open Cup title in 2000.

Jim Curtin – If there ever was an unsung hero with the Fire, it was probably Jim Curtin.

The tall defender with the curly, blonde locks didn’t at first look a player that would go on to appear in an understated 186 competitive matches for the club from 2001-07.

Equipped with an infectious personality, the Fire fan favorite would go on to win two U.S. Open Cups and a Supporter’s Shield and was named the 2004 Fire Defender of the Year.

Diego Gutierrez – Though might not have known much about it at the time, Gutierrez was the scorer of one of the biggest goals in Chicago Fire history, with his 45th minute redirection of Peter Nowak’s strike in MLS Cup ’98.

Having done two stints with the Fire from 1998-01 and 2006-08, Gutierrez was often a constant in the Fire midfield, amassing 197 games, 10 goals and 34 assists (good enough for fifth all-time) while being part of four of the club’s six domestic titles.

Just as important though were Gutierrez’s off-the field contributions. The seven-year Fire veteran was named the club’s Humanitarian of the Year three seasons in a row from 2006-08 as well as winning the league-wide award in 2007 for his work with the Nothing But Nets anti-malaria campaign. 

Damani Ralph – There are few rookies that have been as successful as Damani Ralph was in 2003 when he tallied 14 goals across all competitions and helped the club to the 2003 MLS Supporters Shield, U.S. Open Cup (where he scored the winning goal in the Final) and an appearance in MLS Cup.

The following season the Jamaican international joined his strike partner Ante Razov as the only other player in club history to tally double digit goals twice, recording 14 more to lead the team in 2004.

Following two successful seasons in Chicago, Ralph moved to Russian club Rubin Kazan always leaving Fire fans to wonder would could have been had he stayed with the Men in Red just a bit longer…

Gonzalo Segares – The Costa Rican international was the other player on my list that didn’t make the cut. One of the top defenders in club history, Segares just recently appeared in his 200th game and has owned the left back position since joining the club in 2005.

Also one of the most attack-minded defenders all-time in MLS, Segares sits behind only Lubos Kubik in offense created by Fire back liners, tallying 12 goals and 16 assists across all competitions.

Josh Wolff - Another one I wrangled back and forth with, Wolff is the club’s third all-time leading goal scorer with 39 and adds to that 19 assists over just 106 games.

The last remaining active player from the 1998 double-winning team, Wolff and Razov formed one of the most dangerous striker partnerships in the league from 1999 to 2002.

Having won an MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cups, Wolff also holds the distinction of being the only player in Fire history to tally four goals in a match, doing so in a 5-1 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal victory over Dallas in 2000.

03 October 8:46 am

After a tough loss on Friday night in Kansas City, the Fire are looking to get back into the race for first place in the Eastern Conference when they face the Philadelphia Union at Toyota Park on Wednesday night. Philly are also coming into the game on the back of a loss, going down 3-2 in Columbus last weekend. Though the Union are out of the Playoff race, they will be looking to play spoiler and stop the Fire from moving into second in the standings.

Here are some things to look out for from a tactical standpoint.

Combination plays: Stopping Philly from playing their game

After John Hackworth took over head coach halfway through this season, he has tried to get the Union away from the long ball game if possible and move towards keeping the ball on the ground and moving forward through short, quick, pass combinations.

In the first 60 minutes against the Columbus Crew last weekend, Philly worked this to perfection, gliding through the Columbus midfield on many occasions by moving well off the ball and limiting the amount of touches taken. Even though they were the away team, they enjoyed a lot of possession but for all of their pretty play, they created only a few chances. It was only when they got the wide men in behind did they cause any real damage.

WATCH: Matko's Take on Philadelphia

 

Against the Chicago Wednesday night I can see coach Hackworth deploying the same tactic but it will be up to the Fire to disrupt this as much as possible by trying to impose their game of high pressure, something that was missing against Kansas City Friday. The more the Fire can force Philly into kicking it long, the more it will take them away from their possession-based game plan.

Stopping the super sub: Antoine Hoppenot

Rookie Antoine Hoppenot has been the Union's go-to-guy when the team is looking for a spark in the attack this season. He is clearly more comfortable coming off the bench and single handily turned last week's game against Columbus in the Union's favor after coming off the bench by allowing Philadelphia to play more direct.

Hoppenot is a defender’s nightmare -- a player who is always on the shoulder of the last man and never stops pressuring the back line when he enters the game. He took full advantage against a tired Columbus defense last week, earning a penalty kick and making some brilliant runs in behind the defense. He especially likes to make runs behind the outside defenders, something the Fire were guilty of allowing Kansas City to do too often last week.

When the French striker inventively makes his appearance from the subs bench Wednesday, the Fire cannot allow him to influence the game as he did last weekend.

Fire attack: getting Fernandez more involved 

Though the Fire sat back for the most part on Friday and looked for balls to be played up to Sherjill MacDonald, the team did find some success when “Flaco” Fernandez was able to get forward and support the more advanced players.

Due to Pavel Pardo's injury, Alex has been playing in a much deeper role and must put his defensive duties ahead of his desire to support the attack. Alex's new role has also put more emphasis on Flaco Fernandez to help out in the attack as much as possible. When he did go forward against Kansas City, it resulted in some of the Fire's best chances.

Playing back at home, I expect the Fire to be much more adventurous in attack and this will mean that Fernandez will be given more license to get forward than he was against KC where he was forced to track back for a lot of the game. Fernandez has found himself in some brilliant positions this season, and if not for some lackluster finishing, he would easily have double the amount of goals he already has for the Fire. His forays forward could be the difference against the Union on Wednesday night.

Left back: A familiar face returns

Friday night’s red card to Gonzalo Segares means we will almost certainly see fan favorite Dan Gargan back in the starting lineup for the first time in 11 matches. Gargan is the first sub off the bench if anyone on the back line is injured and the team has relied heavily on his versatility, especially with the many injuries to Fire defenders this season.

That being said, the Fire have been quite lucky to avoid injuries to the back line in recent months and the team's discipline has been excellent this season with minimal suspensions. All of this means that Gargan has started in 17 games this season but none since late July at San Jose. Getting him minutes is very important, especially heading towards the playoffs where the format is longer, meaning a greater chance of someone picking up an injury or suspension.

We all know about Gargan's defensive abilities but against the Union at home, he will be encouraged to push forward and contribute to the attack. How well he combines with the Fire's left winger (assumed to be Patrick Nyarko) will be important. A good performance by Gargan Wednesday would also make a statement to coach Frank Klopas of Gargan's intent to win back a starting place as we enter the most important stretch of the season.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Nyarko and Fernandez.

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

02 October 12:43 pm

Over the summer, we presented 15 Memorable Games and Goals from the club’s first 15 seasons. We also asked you the fans who the top 15 players in club history were.
 
To be clear, you won’t see numbers ranking the players. That’s because this isn’t a countdown but rather a series to honor 15 great players in Fire history.
 
In the previous four episodes of the #Fire15 presented by TrueCar, we’ve honored Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Carlos Bocanegra, Lubos Kubik, Jesse Marsch, Brian McBride, Logan Pause, Marco Pappa, Ante Razov, Chris Rolfe and Zach Thornton.

Today, three Ring of Fire inductees round out the list… The final three players are Frank Klopas, C.J. Brown and Peter Nowak.

 

 
Frank Klopas –  Mr. Chicago. With eight goals and five assists across 50 games, it wasn’t stats but rather the heart and commitment Frank showed that got him on this list. Maybe that winner in the ’98 Open Cup final helped a bit too.
 
As Len Ziehm says in the video, the Fire needed someone local to help the new franchise make a connection to the city. Fans that remembered “Kid Klopas” from Chicago Sting in the 1980’s were reinvigorated by the reappearance of the city’s iconic soccer son in the club’s inaugural 1998 season.
 
More than that, there’s no player that has ever bled Chicago the way Klopas did in his two seasons playing for the Fire. Returning to the club as Technical Director in 2008 and now as head coach, Frank has served to remind the current crop of what it means every time they put on the shirt.
 
C.J. Brown – There are few players quite as deserving of being honored on such a list as C.J. Brown. The club’s all-time appearance leader at 372, Brown is one of only three Fire players to be part of all six domestic titles and was the last connection in the locker room to the 1998 double-winning team.
 
Learning from the likes of Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik and Chris Armas, the 1998 season helped guide the rest of his 13-year career, carrying on and passing down the same characteristics of hard work, competitiveness and integrity to young Fire players through the years.
 
As I say in the video, the former Fire captain was never flashy. He played hard, he picked up cards but he was the constant rock at the back. His legacy is still carried on in the Fire locker room today.
 
Peter Nowak – Often mentioned as the best player to ever wear the badge, Peter Nowak set the bar as high as it could go during his five seasons with the Fire.
 
Nowak joined Kubik, and fellow veteran Poles Jerzy Podbrozny and Roman Kosecki as a large core of the original Fire team, captaining the side to the 1998 double and winning MLS Cup MVP honors in the process.
 
Having played 147 competitive matches, the first signing in Chicago Fire history tallied 29 goals and retains the Fire record for assists across all competitions (60) and in MLS play (48).

At least 11 of the #Fire15 will be present at either Wednesday night’s 15th Anniversary Match vs. Philadelphia or the October 8th Anniversary Party  at the Chicago History Museum.
 
Also! Get your 15th Anniversary Merchandise by clicking here.

01 October 3:24 pm

With the 15th Anniversary of the Chicago Fire coming up on Wednesday (the match) and Monday (the date proper) the Fire has collaborated with Bumpy Pitch to create a Chicago Fire themed shirt that represents the history of soccer and Chicago in a unique way. The Municipal Device shirt will retail for $30 in the Chicago Fire Fan shop and online at www.bumpypitch.com beginning Tuesday, October 2 with $5 benefitting the Chicago Fire Foundation

While the 1871 at the bottom of the shirt is an obvious nod to the Great Chicago Fire (and, well, the club’s name) not as much is known about the Y-shaped municipal device, an often overlooked and mostly forgotten piece of Chicago Civic Pride. Below I wax poetic about the municipal device and what this t-shirt means to me.

The Chicago River weaves along the wings of the urban landscape, dodging the looming steel towers and keeping composure as it splits to hug both sides of Goose Island. The deft waters feint past defending bridges, quickening pace when the terrain declines. The North Branch does not hesitate as it approaches the Loop, diving headfirst into the westward Main Stem of the river, deflecting south, flowing as one.\

In commemoration of the iconic river intersection, Chicago created the municipal device - a Y-shaped symbol representing the three branches converging at Wolf Point. The mark, embedded throughout the architecture of Chicago, is subtly engrained throughout the city – on the cornerstones of civic buildings, the undersides of bridges and etched into the consciousness along Navy Pier. Although it began as a simple show of two waterways uniting, its meaning has transformed in today’s Chicago.

Over the last 200 years, waves of immigrants have splashed upon the shores inhabiting Chicago’s many neighborhoods. On summer evenings, communities spread cultural pride as street festivals fill the lakefront air. Just as two branches of the river come from wide expanses to join together, the citizens of this city, representing four stars and one badge, become one under the Chicago name.

Below, the Fire coaching staff, captain Logan Pause and forward Chris Rolfe model the new t-shirts in front of the "Tradition. Honor. Passion." taglines in the Fire locker room...

01 October 10:23 am

If you were holding out on buying your copy of the recently released FIFA 13 from EA Sports, wait no longer, the Fire defensive corps have given you plenty of reason to go out and buy...

 

 

 

01 October 9:05 am

Last week, I wrote about the backstory to why a seemingly random date in early October – the 8th – is of such importance to the city of Chicago and of even more significance for Fire fans. It is, in brief, the date the Great Chicago Fire engulfed the city in 1871 and the date the Chicago Fire Soccer Club was founded 126 years later in 1997. This week, I wanted to explain exactly what is going on this October 8th with the Fire Anniversary events celebrating the Club’s 15th birthday.

Thanks in part to the urging of effervescent head coach Frank Klopas, Fire fans, former players and other distinguished guests gather together every year on October 8th to honor the Club’s history. In recent years, Section 8 Chicago has organized a big tailgate, parties in the stadium club and welcomed several past and present players join with us on October 8th.

Everybody (Everybody! Everybody!) have been welcome at those events – the Anniversary celebration is not only for the lively young things in Section 8 with their flags and crazy chants, but for the entire Club to come together and honor the founding of the badge we cherish.

Unlike so many other teams in MLS whose insignia has changed (hi, Kansas City) or who seem to have no connection to the city they play in (hi, Chivas USA), the Fire’s identity is embedded into the epic story of Chicago’s emergence from the ashes of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. We should all cherish and celebrate this together, and remember the team’s achievements that set it apart from others (hi, New York) along with the rebuilding of a city so many others in the Midwest can only look at with envy (hi, Columbus). So what better date to do that than October 8th itself?

For the Club’s 15th Anniversary, celebrations will be kicked off when Peter Nowak, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Chris Armas are honored at the Fire-Union game this Wednesday, October 3rd at Toyota Park (TICKETS).

Peter and Chris – along with many of their former teammates - will then be in Chicago five days later on the Anniversary date itself, at a very special celebration on October 8th at a beautiful space in the Chicago History Museum, perched just west of Lincoln Park. This event has been organized and funded through a volunteer committee of fans who have been dedicating a lot of spare (and not-so-spare) time to create a fitting celebration for the 15th year.

The most daunting task for the committee has been tracking down and contacting former players and inviting them to join us for this reunion. While it was difficult for a fan-run committee to find everyone, those we have contacted have all been delighted to hear from Fire fans and a remarkable roster of names (see below) are currently packing their bags as word spread this was an event to be at in order to reminisce about past times, meet up with long lost buddies, and gather with fans to celebrate the Fire’s past, present and future.

So what exactly is happening at the Museum? The main event kicks off at 7pm in the Museum’s gorgeous Georgian Chicago Room. An expansive appetizer buffet from acclaimed caterer Blue Plate and a four hour open bar will be a (delightful) sideshow to the array of Fire legends and current players attending the cocktail reception. This won’t be a stilted seated affair, but instead is being arranged to encourage fans and players to mingle, swap stories and raise a glass together.

In addition, a silent auction with some one-of-a-kind items (such as a gameworn, signed Brian McBride Fire jersey) will be held to benefit the Chicago Fire Foundation and the Museum’s Chicago exhibition itself – including its extensive interactive display about the 1871 Great Fire – will also be open for the first 90 minutes of the event.

Reminders of Club history will be all around, from trophies to jerseys to supporter scarves and memorabilia – to most importantly, the players who brought home six titles to Chicago. Speeches will be made, music will be played, and the cf97 passion this unique gathering will have is likely to be savored for a long time to come.

How can you get a ticket? You can purchase yours online at www.fireanniversary.com (Move fast: they will only be available until Friday, October 5th at 2pm). The ticket costs $97: I’m aware this isn’t a cheap date night – I certainly broke open my piggy bank for this one – but the value of an unprecedented gathering at this fantastic location certainly made it worth spending the cash for me.

I personally cannot wait to honor Fire legends this October 8th as Piotr Nowak, Chris Armas, Lubos Kubik, Frank Klopas, Peter Wilt, Diego Gutierrez, Kelly Gray, Evan Whitfield, Dasan Robinson, Brian McBride, Jesse Marsch, Ante Razov and many others will be celebrating fifteen years of Fire in Chicago with fans – I hope you will be there too.

Where: Chicago History Museum
When: 7-11pm, October 8th 2012
Who: All Fire fans
Tickets: www.fireanniversary.com/tickets
PS: There’s even a swanky after-party at the stunning Filini Bar & Restaurant (221 N. Columbus Drive)
PPS: There might also be a chance for you to play a game with a few of the legends mentioned above from the ’98 team. Stay tuned to the Fire Anniversary website, Twitter and Facebook page for details.

Tom Dunmore is a former Chair of Section 8 Chicago and is currently an editor of XI Quarterly. Follow him on Twitter @tomdunmore

30 September 7:42 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 10:02 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 10:21 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.