A lot is on the line in this afternoon's regular season finale vs. D.C. United (LIVE 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network/97.5 FM ESPN Deportes). Below I give Five Things You Should Know before starting your earlier than normal tailgate.
Pink and Blue - Yes boys and girls, you'll see the Men in Red be the Boys in Blue today as for the second-straight year, the Chicago Fire will help raise Breast Cancer Awareness by wearing commemorative kits with pink lettering and numbering. The Fire Foundation has alrady put all 27 player jerseys plus Sparky's and other pink items up for auctiony, with proceeds going to benefit breast cancer reseach.
Fans can bid online now, text "AUCTION" to 68494 or visit the Foundation tent on the northeast concourse before the end of halftime to put in their bids. Winning bids also receive a post-game autograph session with the player whose jersey they've won.
WATCH: Coach's Take on D.C. United
Some Guys Are Back - The Chicago Fire should be boosted by the return of midfielder Pavel Pardo, who after missing six matches with hamstring and calf injuries since mid-September trained in full this week and told me on Wednesday’s All-In Podcast he felt good to start and go at least 60-70 minutes.
Having been one of only two players to appear in all of the club’s first 27 matches before his injury, there is little doubt the Fire are a better team, going 14-8-5 this year when Pardo’s at command of the midfield.
The importance of Pardo’s return can’t be understated but the Fire will also benefit in regaining the services of defender Arne Fridriech, midfielder Wells Thompson and forward Guillermo Franco.
Friedrich's absence from last week's match was classified as a coach's decision but as the German international explains in the video to the right, both he and Fire manager Frank Klopas decided it was best for him not to play on the turf in New England given his history with back injuries.
Thompson, who rolled his ankle during the Reserve Team’s trip two-match swing in Texas two weeks ago, sat out last Saturday’s game at New England but like Pardo trained in full this week without any issues.
Franco on the other hand returns after serving a two-match suspension for his 78th minute tackle on Philadelphia midfielder Brian Carroll in the Fire’s 3-1 loss to the Union on October 3.
Since joining the Fire before the MLS roster freeze last month, both players have played substitute roles. In his four appearances, the workhorse Thompson has been used almost exclusively in situations where the team is looking to hold a lead. If that’s the case today, it’s a good bet we’ll see him once again.
In contrast, partly because of game situations and also his two-match ban, Franco has been used as a late offensive sub in matches the Fire have been behind at Sporting KC and vs. Philadelphia.
Scenarios: A Timeline – Earlier this week, Sporting KC took away D.C. United’s faint hopes of earning the first seed in the East with their 2-1 win over Philadelphia Wednesday.
With that and the fact that this afternoon’s Union/Red Bulls match ends a half hour before kickoff, the Fire will know by game’s end whether they’ll be playing in the midweek, one-off knockout game on Halloween night or if they’ve finished in the top three and will get a week to rest before beginning their 12th MLS postseason.
WATCH: Coach's Take on D.C. United
For the Fire to finish second: Defeat D.C. United
For the Fire to finish third: Draw DC AND New York draw/loss vs. Philadelphia -OR- Lose to DC AND New York loss/draw vs. Philadelphia AND Houston draw/loss to Colorado
For the Fire to finish fourth**: Draw DC AND New York win vs. Philadelphia -OR- Lose to DC AND New York win vs. Philadelphia AND Houston draw/loss to Colorado
For the Fire to finish fifth: Lose to DC AND New York win vs. Philadelphia AND Houston win vs. Colorado
**If the Fire draw today, they will automatically finish fourth and host either New York or Houston Wednesday night at Toyota Park.
Fire in final Regular Season Games – As you’ve now seen, the Fire absolutely need three points today. Yes, the playoffs have been clinched but there have been few times in MLS history when playoff seeding has been as tight as in the East this season.
Lucky for the Fire, the team has historically done pretty well in regular season finales going 9-4-1 all-time and winning their last six consecutively. In regular season finales played at home, the team is 5-1-1, with the only loss coming in a 6-2 defeat to Columbus in 2003 when a top seed had already been clinched.
Bonus... In nine of their 11 previous seasons of playoff qualification, the Fire have entered the last week of the season playing for positioning in the postseason, going 6-2-1 in those matches and winning their last four games under that scenario (2006-09).
Get in Early – There are lots of corollary reasons to get into the stadium early today: The first 5,000 through the gates will receive a FREE pink Fire slap-band courtesy of University of Illinois Hospital and Health Services System. Also the 2012 Fire MVP, Defender of the Year and Golden Boot awards will be handed out pre-game...
Most importantly though while this is a regular season game, there hasn’t been a game as high stakes as today’s this year. You could argue there hasn’t been a Fire home game this meaningful since the 2009 Eastern Conference final.
Frank Klopas made an appeal to fans at the the October 8 Anniversary Party. Sherjill MacDonald talked about what it meant to see fans ramping up the atmosphere during warmups this week. While this afternoon’s game is a regular season match, it has all the makings of a playoff game and is literally worth three places in the standings.
No excuses. Get in early. Stand. Sing. Participate, all that jazz.