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."