BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Backing into the playoffs isn't an option for the Chicago Fire this season.
After limping into the playoffs last year by winning just one of the last five games of the regular season, Chicago was bounced in the knockout round. This year, they're thankful that nobody's limping with 10 games left – in what has been a rarity this season, the Fire injury report is empty.
“We put a lot into the summer months going into September and we just hit a wall [in 2012], and that was hard to get past,” Rolfe told MLSsoccer.com. “I think we've done a good job of managing guys this year, players, and I think our fitness is at a good point where last year guys were starting to hitting a wall at this time.”
The good fortune comes at a good time – Designated Player Arevalo Rios and midfielder Joel Lindpere will leave on international duty after Sunday's game against Houston.
When they leave, the Fire will be able to plug in a few different experienced options who have played this year. The Fire have added plenty to their roster late this season and have only subtracted out-of-favor players, another reason Rolfe thinks this team stronger than it was at the end of last season, when two important starters left the team.
“We had our most crucial changes early in the season picking up Mike and Baky much earlier than we did last year, so I think we've been able to adapt to that,” Rolfe said. “Everyone is fit and the chemistry has been building.”
With a healthy squad, the Fire are just three points out of a playoff spot and have a chance to leapfrog Houston, who are fourth in the Eastern Conference in points per game.
Sunday's game will be the Dynamo's fifth in 16 days, and their last league loss was a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Montreal. The end of a long stretch should give Houston heavy legs, but after losing to a New England team two weeks ago that had lost two straight, the Fire know not to lower expectations.
“I respect [Houston coach Dominic Kinnear] a lot, I believe he will get them ready,” midfielder Patrick Nyarko told MLSsoccer.com. “I don't think they felt good with that result up in Montreal, and that's the mark of a championship team. They've been in two championship games, they've won championships in the past, they know how to get themselves out of slumps. With a crucial game like this, they are going to be ready. That's a fact.”