The match ups are set and the dates have been determined. The MLS Cup Playoffs begin on Wednesday night with the Fire hosting the Houston Dynamo. The winner of what appears to be an evenly matched contest will advance to play Sporting Kansas City on Sunday afternoon. After a two year absence from postseason competition the Fire followed up the late season success of 2011 with an entertaining, albeit at times frustrating 2012 season that saw them challenge for the top spot in the Conference during an impressive second half run. Despite the success, and the 2012 campaign should certainly be remembered positively no matter what the results are on Wednesday, the Fire's play of late has allowed some of the early season doubts about the overall strength of the club to resurface.
The most obvious concern surrounds the Fire's trend downward in the waning weeks of the season. A 1-3-1 finish that featured losses to non-playoff clubs and a failure to secure a win at home on the last regular season game of the year raises some question about just how good this club really is. Are they team that rose to within one result of the top of the table with only weeks remaining or are they ultimately closer to the side that limped to a fourth place finish by failing to capitalize on opportunity? Four combined victories against Sporting Kansas City and New York coupled with late season losses to Philadelphia and New England when results were absolutely mandatory make this a difficult question to answer.
The difference between the top clubs, the second tier clubs, and the non-contenders in MLS is usually razor thin due to the parity in roster talent driven by the salary cap/budget. The margin of error from game to game is even tighter. This was tellingly apparent during the Fire's 1-1 draw against DC United this past Saturday. One momentary lapse and a well placed cross allowed DC to tie the match and enabled the visitors to come away with all that they needed to secure second place in the conference. All the while the Fire didn't play badly but missed opportunities to score a second goal time and time again. The failure to convert wasn't displayed in one unfortunate moment or solely the fault of one player missing a "sitter". Sherjill MacDonald, Dominic Oduro, and Alvaro Fernandez all had clear opportunities to score a game winner but didn't do so on Saturday.
Dropping from a possible second place finish to the fourth place spot doesn't negate the work Frank Klopas and the club have done to restore the Fire into a playoff contender but one has to wonder if the club has progressed to the point where Klopas has gotten all that he can out of the talent he currently has available on the roster. The Fire are a good team that can display some of the most entertaining soccer in the MLS, their play over the last season and a half bears that out, but are they a club capable of winning a championship at this point? The recent results would seem to indicate that the answer is no.
That is not a knock on the job that Klopas and the organization have done up to this point but rather an observation based on what they have been able to accomplish or in this case failed to accomplish when results were absolutely necessary late in the season. The best teams simply find ways to forge results and those teams are usually buoyed by some of the best players. The Fire can compete with the best but how far can they go?
Several key acquisitions during the campaign have elevated the club's standing and made them into a team that can be very dangerous but the reality is that the current group is a notch below the top clubs in MLS - San Jose, Sporting Kansas City, New York, Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake, and Seattle. The Fire is probably in the "good" category with clubs like DC United, Houston, and Columbus while the aforementioned clubs are in the "very good" category. It's no coincidence that over the course of a long season clubs with difference makers in the offensive third like Chris Wondolowski, Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Mauro Rosales, and Fredy Montero end up playing in CCL, winning cups, and finishing at the top of the table. The clubs without offensive impact players who are automatically considered to be MLS First XI selections can compete but they invariably lose steam at one point or another over 34 games. Impact players or difference makers obviously widen the gap between the "good" and the "very good" but aren't always mandatory when it comes to navigating through MLS postseason play where one unfortunate bounce or one night of negative play could spell doom for a Supporter's Shield winning side. Parity in every sport, not just MLS has ensured that almost every club in the playoffs has a chance to win a championship if they can gather enough confidence and steam to carry them through a short spurt of excellence in route to a championship game even if said club is not the most talented team in the competition. It's the beauty and the curse of a playoff set-up.
One area where the Fire fall short is the inclusion of true difference makers based on the First XI criteria. Chris Rolfe can be one of those players on some nights, but as we have seen recently he can be marked out of matches and the Fire offense is rendered relatively limp as a result. Patrick Nyarko can be a difference maker on other nights but he is more of a player that will excel in combination rather than an individual who will take a team on his back into a championship game. Opposition has taken to rough, physical play in order to neutralize him and it has worked to an extent. Designated Players are not the cure all, end all in Major League Soccer but making the right selections on players who will carry that “tag” is vital when looking to compete not only for an MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shield but outside of the league as well. Wise use of those slots will increase a club’s chances of success in CONCACAF Champion’s League where MLS should strive to prove themselves against other clubs in the region. The Fire have two “DPs” who fall into the “good” category but aren’t necessarily the type of players you can bank your season on. MacDonald has been a welcome addition and a player who fits well into Klopas’ revamped system but he is by no means an impact player that will cause defenders to rue making even the slightest of errors for fear of finding that the ball has ended up in the back of the net. Alvaro Fernandez has been nothing short of underwhelming over the last two months and it is perhaps his play which is key to elevating the Fire into a possible deep playoff run. Is he a consistent impact player? Probably not.
Conversely the Fire do have players capable of being considered difference makers on the defensive side. Arne Friedrich should be in the team picture when discussing First XI central defenders and Austin Berry should be in the conversation within the next few seasons. Sean Johnson is capable of spectacular performances as well although he’s shown that he’s not quite at the highest level just yet. If the old adage holds true that defense wins championships the Fire would appear to have a shot but all too often this season they have found themselves playing from behind after allowing careless early goals. During the course of the regular season however, it seems that quality impact players on the offensive end make more of a mark in terms of qualification for post-season play.
That’s not to say that teams which rely on more of a team concept in lieu of individual brilliance to carry them through are doomed in the MLS Cup playoffs. That is far from the case. Star-laden Los Angeles captured the title last season but so-so Colorado were crowned Champions the previous season. Big money acquisitions don’t guarantee that you’re going to finish at the top of the table, win a championship, or even qualify for the playoffs but the right choices go a long way toward giving you a shot. The Fire
have a shot, albeit a bit of a long one.
Here’s a look at my MLS Cup playoff predictions.
Knock Out Round
Chicago 2 Houston 1 – This game could be considered a toss-up given the Fire’s struggles of late but Houston has been spotty on the road all season while Chicago has been generally solid at home. Expect Dominic Kinnear to employ some of the physical, pressing style denying Rolfe room in midfield that gives the Fire fits.
Los Angeles 1 Vancouver 0 – The Galaxy have Landon Donovan and David Beckham back and appear ready to defend their title after a terrible start to the season. Vancouver has a shot if they can keep it tight but they’re the only sub .500 side in the playoffs for a reason. Despite signing Barry Robson to a big contract, they don’t have difference makers up front and scored only 35 times this season, easily the lowest total among playoff teams.
Sporting Kansas City over Chicago – The Fire have defeated Sporting twice this season and have shown that they can play with them. Kansas City was the toughest team to score against this season and rode their physical, high pressure style to the top of the East for the second consecutive season. One drawback for KC is their lack of difference makers up front and that could hurt them again this postseason. Are Kei Kamara and Graham Zusi ready to step up to the next level? This match up will be even tighter than the three regular season encounters were.
New York over DC United – Ben Olsen did a fine job of altering his tactical approach to suit each opponent down the stretch after losing DeRosario but I still maintain DC can be beat in back. The Fire created “a month’s” worth of chances on Saturday according to Chris Rolfe. What are the odds that Henry and Cooper miss as many as the Fire did if given the opportunity? New York is shaky defensively as well and this should be the highest scoring series of the bunch.
Real Salt Lake over Seattle – RSL’s core has been in place since 2008/2009 and some have questioned if this will be their last run together. Alvaro Saborio has been one of the top goal scorers in MLS over the last three seasons and they feature several players who are under consideration for MLS First XI every year. So do the Sounders, but the health of Eddie Johnson is in question and they seem to have made a habit of losing in the playoffs. This should be a highly entertaining two game set.
Los Angeles over San Jose – Probably considered an upset since the Earthquakes are the Supporter’s Shield winners. Frank Yallop had the benefit of many players having career years and everything he did seemed to work but their regular season run of luck with last minute scores and fortunate bounces could be over as post season begins. San Jose defeated LA 3-2 and 4-3 this season with a third match ending in a 2-2 draw. Scoring won’t be as wide open this time and playoff competition seems to favor San Jose’s holding/grabbing/pushing/flopping style. A fit and motivated Donovan is the key here. If his head is elsewhere, San Jose advances. If he’s charged and ready LA goes through.
Sporting Kansas City over New York – Each of these match-ups are difficult to call because of the reasons mentioned above so I’ll throw my theory right out the window with this pick. The team concept and defense of Sporting Kansas City will top the DP heavy Red Bulls. Sporting also plays a style that should be conducive to playoff competition and they’ve proven they can get a result in New York.
Real Salt Lake over Los Angeles – If the Galaxy can get by San Jose they still have a difficult task ahead of them against the ’09 MLS Cup Champions. Both teams have struggled at times during the year with injury and inconsistency but both have numerous players worthy of First XI consideration (ie difference makers). Real Salt Lake is out of CCL competition so Jason Kreis will be looking to find some redemption this season. I say he finds some and RSL earns a trip to Kansas City.
Real Salt Lake over Sporting Kansas City – The former Wizards have a shot at the “double” after winning the US Open Cup but they’ll face a battle tested, veteran side in the final that will go into penalty kicks. Logan Pause and Brandon Prideaux will be shockingly selected to take the final two kicks and Nick Rimando…..oh never mind…I had a flashback. Sam Stejskal will be happy this time.