There's little doubt that Saturday night's match vs. Columbus (LIVE at 7pm CT on NBC 5.2) is one of the most important this season for the Fire. Below, find five things you should know heading into the game...
1) Franco Cleared and an Injury Update– In case you missed my tweet Friday night, new Fire striker Guillermo Franco has received his international transfer certificate and P1 Visa, making the former Mexican international available for selection by Frank Klopas Saturday night.
Franco of course played 61 minutes and hit the post in the Fire Reserves 2-1 win over FC Dallas on Tuesday. While the former Monterrey forward admitted to being somewhat tired after the game, he said that he would be ready to play if called upon Saturday.
On Friday, Fire head coach Frank Klopas indicated to reporters that Franco could see time Saturday night.
As for Fire players that have dealt with injuries this week, Arne Friedrich, who came out of last Saturday's game with neck tightness trained all week and looks ready to play. Midfielder Daniel Paladini, who has missed the team's last two matches due to a calf straign, also trained most of the week and Klopas indicated that he'd like likely be avaiable for selection.
While there was good news on those fronts, the Fire manager left veteran midfielder Pavel Pardo's participation in the match in doubt Friday. Having missed last Saturday's game vs. Montreal, Klopas signaled that whether or not the former Mexican international suited up would be a gameday decision.
2) Record vs. Columbus – Much like the Fire’s overall home record this season (10-2-2), the team has historically fared well vs. the Crew at Toyota Park, going 4-1-5 all-time since the stadium’s opening in 2006. The team also currently holds a eight-match unbeaten streak at home vs. the Crew dating back to June 3, 2007.
WATCH: Crew Review and Preview
3) Who’ve They Beaten? – A lot of due credit has gone to midseason signings Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta for helping to take the Crew from a team that could have finished near bottom in the East to a legitimate playoff contender.
That pair’s reinforcement plus the better overall play from the entire team is what has us biting our finger nails vs. potentially talking about clinching a playoff spot in tonight’s match.
That’s fine but when looking back on the four-game winning streak that put the Crew back in the race in August, you see Columbus taking advantage of a weak schedule.
Wins against Toronto, New England, Philadelphia and Montreal, three of which were at home, helped the Crew surge up the table. But having to go on the road the following two weeks, Columbus dropped two-goal results at the same New England team (2-0) and at New York last week.
The two losses made Wednesday’s game vs. Chivas USA all the more important and Justin Meram’s 89th minute goal gave the team another valuable three points, albeit against the West’s worst team.
4) 85th Minute and Beyond - While I’m not convinced about the Crew’s form based on their recent wins, what I am convinced about is their scary penchant for scoring late goals to win matches. In four of their last five wins, the Crew have found a winner in the 85th minute and beyond.
If you can say one negative thing about the Fire’s performances this year, its that they’ve been frustrating at times in closing games out. The team has often wasted too many good opportunities to put their opponent to the sword or surrendered late goals to make the final moments nervy.
There’s no better reason than the Crew’s record of confidence in the waning minutes of a match than to close the door as early as possible.
5) “Just Win” – I think it was late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis that said it best by adding “baby” to the end of that phrase but it hasn’t rang this true for the Fire in a while.
Simply put, a win by the Men in Red Saturday night would stand as one of the biggest results of the season, taking take three points off the team the Fire need to distance themselves from in the playoff race, while keeping pace for the Eastern Conference’s top spot.
More boldly, a Fire win Saturday night would then set up a scenario by which the team could clinch its first postseason berth since 2009 next week. No need to look too far ahead but with Columbus, DC and Kansas City all winning at midweek and Houston having an easy schedule, there is no need to belabor the point.
Having won six of the last seven, the Fire are the hottest team in MLS and everyone’s talking about it. There’s no doubt added pressure exists but the Men in Red are hosting a team that exerted full effort three days ago to earn a 1-0 victory over Chivas USA. The Fire are the better team and will see Toyota Park (where they haven’t lost to an East team in nearly two years) a near sellout Saturday night.
No need to fuss around tonight, “Just win, baby.”
Prediction: 2-1 Fire. Goals from Rolfe and Oduro.