Veljko Paunovic

Eastern Conference round-up: Fire look to accelerate race to the playoffs

After a trying run of results in late August, the Fire have picked up four points from their last two matches but will be eager to collect the full three points at stake on Saturday when D.C. United makes its lone visit to Toyota Park this season (7:30 p.m. CT | TICKETS). There is still plenty to be determined over the final six weeks of the MLS regular season, with the Fire -- currently nine points clear of seventh-place Montreal -- continuing to push for a top-2 playoff seed in the East while fending off challenges from several clubs immediately beneath them in the table. 

With Toronto FC seemingly on its way to the East's No. 1 seed, here's an update of where the rest of the field stands entering another big round of late-season matches:

2. New York City FC (50 points, 28 games played)

NYCFC suffered only its second loss since the MLS All-Star break on the weekend, getting tripped up at home, 1-0, by the Portland Timbers. Patrick Vieira's side was without the services of Golden Boot leader David Villa (adductor injury) and now faces a long trip out west to take on the Colorado Rapids. Dropping points on the road could open the door for the Fire to close the gap, two weeks ahead of NYCFC's much-anticipated trip to Toyota Park on Sept. 30 (TICKETS). 

3. Chicago Fire (45 points, 28 games played)

After Saturday's draw prevented the fifth-place Red Bulls from gaining immediate ground in the table, Chicago now readies to face a D.C. United side it has already defeated once this year but also one that is a much different squad than the one encountered back in May. Whether or not Bastian Schweinsteiger is ready to re-enter the fold remains to be seen, but Veljko Paunovic will be determined to guide his club to three points regardless. 

4. Columbus Crew SC (43 points, 29 games played)

Three meetings this season between the Fire and Crew SC resulted in a sum of four points to both sides, and Columbus has followed three straight losses with five unbeaten to gain a foothold in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They'll make the long trip to see a surging Vancouver side Saturday and hope for three points in a key home match the following week with the Red Bulls. 

5. New York Red Bulls (41 points, 27 games played)

New York has drawn three straight outings and hasn't won in MLS since August 12, but remain on solid postseason ground entering a home date with Philadelphia. The club has a packed fixture list upcoming that includes the U.S. Open Cup final in Kansas City (Sept. 20), so winning at home will be a priority for Jesse Marsch's side. 

6. Atlanta United FC (39 points, 25 games played)

The wild card in the Eastern Conference playoff scene, expansion Atlanta United opened their new home to much fanfare on Sunday and will hope to replicate it in four upcoming home matches over the next 12 days. If they have the stamina to withstand the schedule ahead, their games in hand could allow them to make a sudden move past Columbus and New York -- and could even have them level in points with the Fire by the time Chicago takes the field on Saturday. 

7. Montreal Impact (36 points, 27 games played)

After an impressive run in mid-August, the Impact were slowed by the Fire's 1-0 win at Stade Saputo, an ensuing loss to their playoff competition (New England) and Sunday's win by Atlanta United. A home win against Minnesota United on Saturday seems like a must to allow them to keep pace. 

8. New England Revolution (35 points, 27 games played)

The aforementioned win over Montreal was a vital one for New England, who now face an equally vital trip to the team they hope to keep pace with in Atlanta United.