With a battle for the top spot in the Eastern Conference looming this Friday night the Fire hold their playoff destiny in their own hands. The two year playoff drought is over, now it's just a matter of how high they can finish in the standings. Beating Sporting Kansas City for the third time this season should indicate that Chicago is the front runner and favorite to capture first place in the conference. A draw or a loss will set up a fight for positioning with Sporting, New York, and possibly Houston. Taking a look at the remaining fixtures it's difficult to prognosticate where each club will finish given the unpredictability of MLS play and the slim margins in quality between clubs but I'll give it a go anyhow. Here's a breakdown for each of the remaining contenders followed by my predicted order of finish.
New York Red Bulls
Currently sitting in third place (14-8-8 50 pts) the DP-heavy Red Bulls still have a shot at the top spot despite inconsistent play and occsaionally shoddy defensive work. They have three home games remaining including a rematch with Sporting KC at Red Bull Arena and a visit from the Fire which could be a match that determines the Conference winner.
9/29 v. Toronto FC - should be a win against a team at the bottom of the league.
10/6 v. Chicago - The Fire usually play well against NY so I'll go with a draw. More on this below.
10/20 v. Sporting KC - I don't see New York losing two in a row at home to the same squad in a short period of time. Win.
10/27 @ Philadelphia - should be a win.
That combination of results would put the Red Bulls at 60 pts (17-8-9).
They were shockingly hammered by Philadelphia this past weekend but things are looking up. All four remaining games on the schedule will be played at home where they are difficult to beat. Top that off with a list of four teams that will be playing for nothing other than pride and it's not difficult to see Houston running the table to end the season. They're currently clinging to the 5th place spot on 46 points (12-8-10).
9/29 v. New England - The Revolution are playing out the string...again
10/6 v. Montreal - probably their most difficult match but Montreal isn't a pushover
10/20 v. Philadelphia - the Union are a constant in just about every contender's schedule to close the season and have a chance to play spoiler. I doubt they do it to Houston again.
10/27 - v. Colorado - another team playing out the string
Four wins and maximum points would leave the Dynamo with 58 pts (16-8-10).
I thought they would have the most trouble claiming a post season spot a few weeks ago but three consecutive wins, albeit against not so impresive competition in New England, Chivas USA, and Philadelphia has pushed them into fourth place and a tie on points with New York at 50 (15-10-5). They won't have Dwayne DeRosario back any time soon and they're not out of the woods yet. They've got three road matches remaining and United struggles when visiting (4-9-1).
9/29 @ Portland - The Timbers are typically compeitive at home so this won't be easy. Loss.
10/6 @ Toronto FC - United has already beaten them once in Canada. Can they do it again? Draw.
10/20 v. Columbus - this could be the deciding match in the battle for the final playoff spot. Win.
10/27 @ Chicago - The Fire just don't lose to Eastern Conference teams at home. Loss.
This finish would leave DC United at 54 points (16-12-6) and locked into an all out mad dash to the finish line against another familiar foe.
Federico Higuian ingnited a string of victories upon joining the squad but things have cooled off of late. They've got three home games remaining so winning every match at Crew Stadium is vital to their survival just to have a chance. Currently on the outside looking in with 45 points (13-11-6).
9/29 v. Philadelphia - The Union pop up again looking to spoil someone's day in the East. Win.
10/7 v. Sporting KC - A must win against a difficult opponent. If they don't get a result here the next match could bury them. Win.
10/20 @ DC United - See above. This should be a good one to watch. Loss.
10/28 v. Toronto FC - If you can't beat the Reds on the last day of the season you probably don't deserve to make the playoffs.
Three wins is a tall order and they'll need Higuain to rediscover the form he had upon his arrival. If they can pull this off they're tied with DC at 54 (16-12-6). They would lose out to DC in a "Goals Scored" tie-breaker if this is the case.
Sporting Kansas City
They've ridden their blazing start to their current standing at the top of the table (55 points, 16-7-7) but they've had trouble scoring consistenly all season. They need results in their next two matches or Chicago and possibly New York will surpass them. I questioned their high pressure style early in the season and doubted they could keep up the intensity displayed in their first seven matches over the course of a 34 game season. They've held up pretty well so far but there is that question about a team they can't seem to beat coming into town on Friday.
9/28 v. Chicago - The big one. Losing to Chicago for a third time this season will make it very difficult to hold onto the top spot. This is close to a must win for Sporting so I'll count this one in the "W" column.
10/3 @ Columbus - This one is very important for both clubs especially if Sporting can't pick up a result against the Fire. Columbus may need it more. Loss.
10/20 @ New York - After handing the Red Bulls their first home loss of the season last Wednesday I don't see them repeating the feat in the span of one month.
10/24 v. Philadelphia - Three points a must.
A so-so finish with two home victories and two road defeats will leave Sporting in a position to edge out New York even if the October 20 match doesn't go their way. 61 points and an 18-9-7 mark isn't bad but is it enough to hold onto the top spot in the East?
The club is within one victory of surpassing a team that started the year with seven consecutive wins. That's pretty impressive and illustrates that the Fire is indeed the hottest team in MLS at the just the right time. Two difficult road matches are sandwiched around some very winnable games and the Fire seem poised to take adavantage of that.
9/28 @ Sporting KC - The Fire have been able to forge results consistenly against Kansas City over the last few years and have already beaten them twice this season. Dropping this match wouldn't be the end of the world but a win would appear to put them in the driver's seat. A draw wouldn't be a bad result either.
10/3 v. Philadelphia - A 15th Anniversary commemoration at half time, Peter Nowak in the house with his former employer and legal nemesis serving as the oppponent, and the Fire haven't lost to an Eastern Conference club all season. There's no reason to believe it happens here. Win.
10/6 @ New York - The Fire beat them in Chicago 3-1 back in June and lost 1-0 in a bizarre afternoon midweek game in July. I can see these two teams splitting in a rubber match. Draw.
10/20 @ New England - Another chance to dig it in againt an old rival especially after losing in New England on June 2 in arguably the Fire's worst game of the season. Win.
10/27 v. DC United - Yet another opportunity to infilct some damage upon an old rival. Did I mention the Fire don't lose at home to teams in the East?
Ten points over the last five matches will give the Fire 63 on the season and a remarkable 19 wins (19-9-6) which should be enough to outlast both Kansas City and New York if my predictions hold true. Of course this is MLS and just about anything can happen over the course of the next month. Hold onto your hats, here's what the final table could look like come playoff time.
1. Chicago Fire 19-9-6 63 pts.
2. Sporting KC 18-9-7 61 pts.
3. New York Red Bulls 17-8-9 60 pts.
4. Houston Dynamo 16-8-10 58 pts.
5. DC United 16-12-6 54 pts.
6. Columbus Crew 16-12-6 54 pts.
One big advantage for the Fire is the additional fifth game remaining giving Chicago a "game in hand" over the other clubs vying for playoff position. Sporting is still very capable of holding onto the top spot if they can defeat the Fire and go on to pick up a result in Columbus the following week. If not, Kansas City supporters and front office staff will certainly be feeling the sting of losing to their "rivals" yet again.
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ESPN 1220 is a Spanish language sports station but our MLS segments will feature both English and Spanish content.
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