You could nearly taste it.
It was about this time last week the confidence around the Chicago Fire was higher than its been in a very long time. For good reason: the team had been victorious in an impressive seven of eight games, scored some brilliant goals and pushed themselves to the brink of playoff qualification.
The Men in Red headed to Kansas City last Friday knowing a win would push them to first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time since May 2008. But a flat first half performance forced the side to chase the rest of the game and eventually resulted in a 2-0 loss.
Worse than that, somewhat curious dismissals of defender Gonzalo Segares and head coach Frank Klopas meant the team was without the pair for Wednesday night’s clash vs. Philadelphia.
HIGHLIGHTS: Union 3, Fire 1
And then that happened.
An even flatter performance against a lowly Union side saw the Fire drop a 3-1 result, putting to end the team’s nearly two-year, 19-game home unbeaten streak against the Eastern Conference.
It was a night in which the easy pass was hit too hard and the difficult one too soft, players often looked a step late and the team seemed a little disjointed. Even trailing 2-0, the Fire fought back with a Dominic Oduro goal in the 69th minute and looked good to equalize before substitute Guillermo Franco was sent off for a late challenge on Brian Carroll.
From there, just getting a point would have been good enough but pushing forward, the team was caught out once again late.
“I think it was the worst game we’ve played of the season,” said assistant coach Leo Percovich in the post-game press conference. “Especially when we play at home you never expected that and tonight, humbling. They played, we saw the pressure and we put too much pressure on ourselves.”
Perhaps most frustrating, it marked the 19th time in 31 games this season the Fire have conceded the first goal and the 11th time they’ve done so inside the first 25 minutes.
While earning eight comeback wins is impressive, sooner or later giving up the first one was going to bite the Fire admitted Patrick Nyarko.
“We have to focus on not giving up an early goal, we’ve done that way too many times. Fortunately we’ve been able to come back but at some point your luck runs out, so we need to avoid going down early.”
“This is soccer, this is not a science. Sometimes soccer works on emotion,” said Percovich. “Sometimes these things happen and they happen in the worst moments. You never expect it. That’s why we reorganize. Try to take the experience of what happened tonight and get ready for the next games because there’s another opportunity three, four days later.”
That opportunity comes with another high-profile, nationally televised clash on NBC Saturday afternoon (2:30pm CT) at second place New York.
Even with the last two results, playoff qualification is far from lost but one thing that is would be the game in hand the Fire have so often had on the teams around them this season.
Equal on points with Red Bull, if the Fire can go to New Jersey and sneak a win, they’ll still have a grasp on second place in the East and depending on what Columbus or Houston do Saturday, could still clinch a playoff spot this weekend.
Considering Red Bull is 11-1-3 at home this year, a draw could still put the Fire in a very good position with two games left.
A loss on Saturday though will make things in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race very difficult.
No one said it would be easy.