After a shocking 3-1 loss to Philadelphia at home on October 3 that could have been written off as an isolated flat performance, the Fire seemingly redeemed themselves a week later with a solid 2-0 victory over New York. That win pulled the club to within three points of Sporting Kansas City and the Eastern Conference lead. Beating the lowly and undermanned New England Revolution with playoff positioning and one of the top two spots in the East on the line would have seemed to be a given for a club with championship aspirations.
Winning games you have to win, against inferior competition is something that is a trademark of the best teams in sports (not just soccer). Consistency, coupled with the ability to grind out results in less than optimum conditions is a sign that a club is ready to take a step in the direction of serious championship contention. The latest "flat" and uninspired performance raises questions about the Fire and their standing heading into post season play. Are they closer to Sporting and the top of the Conference or are they destined to occupy the 4th or 5th spots in the East?
The Fire have somehow managed to defeat Sporing Kansas City twice this season while losing to the New England Revolution in two listless performances at Gillette Stadium. Let's forget about the cries bemoaning artificial turf. Both sides have to play on it and the Revs are by no means a powerhouse while playing on their fake grass and borrowed home field. Simply writing this one off as a loss while citing the Fire's historically bad record on turf is ignoring the bigger picture.
Championship teams win games of this nature. Championship clubs don't lose to two out of three games to unarguably less talented squads. The victory in New York raised the bar and provided some redemption for the loss at home to the Union. This loss raises the questions and concerns once again.
Which team will show up when the playoffs begin in November? Anything can happen in the post season but with Championship clubs you shouldn't have to raise the type of questions that the Fire are currently trying to answer this late in the season.
GK Sean Johnson (5) - New England mustered one shot on goal. Diego Fagundez' 17th minute blast was well taken but it appeared Johnson was shaded a bit too far to his left leaving the far post exposed.
D Dan Gargan (5) - Back in the starting eleven and had a fair night but the Fire had nothing going despite a few support runs from Gargan in the first half.
D Austin Berry (5) - Sat back a bit too far and allowed too much space for Fagundez to tee up the shot that beat Johnson. Unfortunately that was the difference in the game against a team 27 points behind the Fire in the standings.
D Jalil Anibaba (5) - A decent night at center back in place of Arne Friedrich but why did he duck out of the way of Fagundez' shot?
D Gonzalo Segares (5) - Got more involved in the Fire's floundering attack in the second half but a 72nd minute shot on goal was sent well high and wide of goal.
M Logan Pause (5) - New England enjoyed some possession early but their midfield was largely just as bad as the Fire's for most of the match. Subbed out in the 82nd.
M Daniel Paladini (5) - I thought he was the Fire's best player for most of the night. Showed some spark and provided decent service from corners for the most part. Came out in the 64th minute.
M Patrick Nyarko (4) - The Fire are most dangerous when playing the ball on the ground in an attack funneled through Nyarko and Rolfe. The Ghanian winger never really got going. His space was limited, he seemed to struggle with turf bounces, and his passing was less than satisfactory.
M Alvaro Fernandez (4) - He hasn't been terrible but he hasn't been good either. The concern with Fernandez is that you expect more than just "meh" from a designated player and an individual who has a spot on the Uruguayan National team. Tonight was another "meh".
F Chris Rolfe (4) - Like Nyarko, he never really got going and seemed to be playing too far into midfield to make himself dangerous in the offensive third. Playing too deep leaves MacDonald alone on an island.
F Sherjill MacDonald (4) - No service to speak of forced him into a higher position to receive the ball. The Fire had absolutely nothing going up front.
M Alex (5) - Came in for Paladini in the 64th and really didn't factor into much of any consequence either.
F Dominic Oduro (5) - Entered the match for Pause in the 82nd. He should have been into the match earlier.
C Frank Klopas (4) - With the club struggling offensively it seemed that substitutions either came too late or were the wrong moves. Alex for Pause instead of Paladini (as color commentator Evan Whitfield suggested) would have made more sense. Waiting until the 82nd minute to introduce Oduro's element of speed was way too late in the match to have any effect. Klopas can't be very happy with this performance and has to regroup once again heading into a match for second place against DC United next weekend. He's still a solid coach of the year candidate but this should be a concerning loss for the coaching staff. The decision to sit Friedrich due to turf concerns also backfired.
Regular Season Finale
The Fire can clinch second place with a win over DC United next Saturday. They can also finish as low as fifth if they lose and New York and Houston are both victorious. The Red Bulls travel to Philadelphia and Houston is at Colorado. Nothing is a given. Another "flat" performance could push them into a one game first round knock out situation in Houston, where the Dynamo has yet to lose.