The Western Conference playoff match-ups are all lined up but the East is still unsettled. While all five participants have been determined going into the final weekend of the regular season, the who's/where's/and when's have yet to be aligned. The Fire can finish the campaign as high as second and as low as fifth depending on the outcome of this weekend's events. Needless to say, a win against DC United is critical to avoiding a one game knock-out that would be played on either October 31 or November 1.
Need a reason for optimism? Despite the loss to non-contender New England this past weekend the Fire have fared reasonably well against the other four Eastern Conference playoff participants this year. A 5-3-2 record against Sporting Kansas City, New York, DC, and Houston actually stands as the best combined mark among the five competitors in head to head play. Here's where each team would stand based solely on head to head competition amongst themselves:
Chicago 5-3-2, 17 pts, 12 GF, 13 GA
Sporting 4-3-4, 16 pts, 11 GF, 8 GA
Houston 4-4-4, 16 pts, 14 GF, 12 GA
New York 3-5-3, 12 pts, 10 GA, 18 GA
DC United 3-5-1, 10 pts, 16 GF, 18 GA
Success against the East's top clubs, particularly Sporting and New York has helped catapult the Fire back into the postseason for the first time since 2009 but the disturbing knack for playing uninspired ball against the lower level squads has placed them in the tenous position of having to win a final home game in order to avoid a possible one game elimination on the road. The Fire's opponent this weekend, DC United has risen to the second spot in the table by doing exactly what the Fire has failed to do in the last several weeks of the season. Defeat the teams below them. United is a combined 5-1-1 against the likes of New England and Philadelphia. The Fire have managed an unimpressive 3-3-0 against those same two clubs with a pair of horrific losses coming within the last few weeks.
The Fire dropped their only match against DC this season 4-2 at RFK Stadium on August 22. Judging by the approach that Ben Olsen employed in that game and the success that New England had crowding Chris Rolfe this past weekend, expect to see more of the high pressure, physical play in midfield that the Fire seem to struggle with. Frank Klopas and the coaching staff must rely on Alvaro Fernandez and Patrick Nyarko to step up their play several notches in order to avoid being shutdown by simply shadowing and tightly marking Rolfe out of the game. Frank Klopas has done an excellent job of adjusting tactically for the last season and a half depending on the talent he has on the pitch. Late last season the Fire found success with direct play utilizing the pace of Dominic Oduro and Nyarko. This season he incorporated new personnel and a different style of attack to find success with the additions of Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald.
It will obviously help to be as close to full strength as possible heading into this match and the eventual playofs. The Fire are hoping to have Pavel Pardo back for this game and Guillermo Franco is available after serving a two game suspension. DC United still has offensive weapons despite the loss of Dwayne DeRosario but they are questionable defensively. Pardo, whose absense has certainly been felt although Daniel Paladini has done a creditable job at times, should be able to help exploit United's backline by finding Nyarko and Fernandez in dangerous positions if DC focuses too much attention on Rolfe.
A second place finish is there for the taking but it may require another adjustment to avoid a short lived return to playoff action.
The Final Week
Philadelphia @ Sporting Kansas City (Wednesday 7:30)
New York @ Philadelphia (Saturday 12:30)
DC @ Chicago (Saturday 3:00)
Houston @ Colorado (Saturday 8:00)