Fire Slay Another Giant. Are There Enough Games Left?

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(photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

The Chicago Fire’s 2:0 blanking of FC Dallas on Sunday was truly a breath of fresh air. For once, the Fire’s backline looked like a disciplined, coordinated group, unlike the amateurish vagabonds that allowed two very sloppy goals to New England on July 25. Whether this turnabout was due to the return of Jeff Larentowicz, the benching of Adailton, the return of Matt Polster to his rightful place in midfield, or some combination of the three is great fodder for discussion. Regardless of how the Fire did it, they got the job done, and these three points are crucial in determining whether a playoff spot is even feasible. With 13 matches left and 39 points on offer, the Fire really need to take the positives from this performance and make sure that they are part of the game plan every week.

Frank Yallop had everyone in the starting rotation available except for Mike Magee, so his 11 was very nearly the best choice at every position. Lovell Palmer and Joevin Jones were the bookends for Eric Gehrig and Larentowicz in the back four. Gehrig played his best game in a Fire uniform, dispelling doubts (at least for a day) that he belongs at this level. Gehrig won nearly every battle, and this was no small feat, considering that Dallas had scored 17 goals in the six-game unbeaten streak that they brought into Toyota Park on Sunday.

Yallop opted for the empty bucket in his four-man midfield. Polster and Razvan Cocis patrolled the middle to protect the backline, while Harry Shipp and Shaun Maloney played wide. The speed element was up top, represented by Jason Johnson and David Accam. This structure conceded a lot of possession to the visitors, but they did precious little with it. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson only needed to make one save prior to second-half stoppage time. The end result might not have been flowing football, but it was effective in the end. And the Fire won’t feel the need to apologize; all points earned at this late stage are vital.

That speed advantage was on full display in just the fourth minute. Accam held onto possession just inside the Fire half, shed two defenders and laid off a square ball for Jason Johnson. Accam tore into the open space on the right and Johnson sent the ball right back to him. Accam turned Matt Hedges inside out and then nutmegged goalie Dan Kennedy for his sixth goal of the season. Indeed, speed kills.

That early strike set the right tone and the Fire continued with confidence. The central core of their defensive formation did a fine job protecting the area in front of the Fire penalty area. Polster and Cocis continued to show that they are a terrific tandem, while Gehrig seemed to win nearly every loose ball that came hear him. Honestly, the Fire made Dallas look like a really bad team, not one contending for the top spot in the West.

But who would step up and find a second goal to put the Fire in the driver’s seat? Fire fans are accustomed to late-game collapses, and one-goal leads always seem to be the first step in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In the second half, Larentowicz saw a shot bang off of Kennedy’s left goalpost and Cocis drilled a long-range bomb that sent Kennedy full stretch. Dallas was doing just enough to stay in the game.

Jason Johnson made way for Kennedy Igboananike in the 66th minute and Palmer left two minutes later after having suffered a minor knee injury. Matt Watson came on, a move which shifted Polster to right back.

Watson lasted just 11 minutes, sent off by referee Jair Marrufo following an ugly, two-footed challenge at midfield. Watson’s timing on the tackle could not have been worse, and his lunge smacked of desperation. This left the Fire a man short and still clinging to that 1:0 lead.

Things changed just a couple of minutes later when Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta proved to be dumber than Watson. Accam had been ridden off the ball by Zach Loyd on the left side of the box. Loyd, trying to maintain his balance, tried to poke the ball into the clear. Igboananike rushed in to win possession and a stunned Acosta reacted late and instinctively stuck out a leg to trip Igboananike. Marrufo did not hesitate to point to the spot. Acosta had no business making any kind of challenge on Igboananike, who was right on the border of the penalty area, running away from the Dallas goal when he was tripped. Maloney converted the penalty, ripping a low shot into the left corner, just out of Kennedy’s reach. That goal provided a sigh of relief all around Toyota Park, as the points were clearly in the bag.

Getting a solid result against a tough opponent is promising, but Playoff Math is working against the Fire. The following table shows the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.

Club

Games Played Points Points per Game

Projected Total

Toronto

20

28

1.40

48

Montreal

19

27

1.42

48

Orlando City

22

27

1.23

42

NYC

22

24

1.09

37

Chicago

21

22

The Projected Total of points assumes that teams will continue to earn points the rest of the season at their current pace. Under this scenario, Toronto and Montreal would end up on 48 points as the fifth and sixth qualifiers for the playoffs.

I have left blanks for the Fire in this table because the analysis will focus on what the Fire need to do to finish above the proverbial Red Line. To reach 49 points, the Fire need 27 in their final 13 matches, which translates into a pace of 2.1 points per game, roughly double their pace to this point in the season. Was Sunday’s win the day that the Fire flipped a switch?

It had better be, because, in order to get 27 points in 13 matches, the Fire’s record the rest of the way has to look something like this (W-D-L): 7-6-0, 8-3-2, or 9-0-4. Seeing that the Fire have won just six matches to date, getting to 49 points appears to be a daunting task. What’s more, the Fire will have to pass three teams in the standings in order to reach sixth place. If NYC FC get on a hot streak thanks to the additions of Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, the Fire’s task gets that much tougher. And on the other hand, if one or more of the teams ahead of the Fire go on a cold spell, it could provide a pathway for the Fire to climb the table.

The bottom line here is that the Fire have very little margin for error the rest of the way. Dropping points is not an option, it merely makes the climb upward that much steeper.

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