With only seven points separating the top spot from the seventh in the Eastern Conference it's not hard to imagine that the playoff qualifiers may not be determined until the final weekend of the season. The Fire have ten games remaining and currently sit outside of the pack in seventh place but they've got as many as two "games in hand" against three of their competitors. Every game is setting up to be a must win match but they're not the only club in that boat. A slip up or drop in form like the one Sporting Kansas City has suffered through lately could prove disastrous for any of the current top three.
Here's a look at the remaining schedule for each of the seven clubs still in contention for a playoff spot. I've excluded Columbus, DC United, and Toronto FC from the mix. They haven't been mathematically eliminated but they'd almost need an undefeated and untied closure to the season with additional help in order to qualify.
Montreal Impact (41 pts, 12-7-5)
The Impact started the season on a roll before coming back to the pack over the last two months. A resounding 5-0 win over Houston this past Saturday has raised some eyebrows. They will have tired legs to battle over the next two months with CONCACAF Champion's League matches on 8/21, 9/17, and 9/24.
8/31 @Philadelphia, 9/8 @ New England, 9/14 v Columbus, 9/21 v Vancouver, 9/28 @ Chicago, 10/4 @ Houston, 10/12 v New England, 10/16 @ Los Angeles, 10/19 v Phildelphia, 10/26 @ Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls (39 pts, 11-9-6)
They've obviously got some offensive talent but there are still concerns defensively. They really haven't shown up as a cohesive unit all season and their up and down status shows it. The Fire has two games in hand on them and they finish the regular against each other at Red Bull Arena.
8/31 v DC, 9/8 @ Houston, 9/14 v Toronto FC, 9/22, v FC Dallas, 9/29 @ Seattle, 10/5 v New England, 10/20 @ Houston, 10/27 v Chicago
Sporting Kansas City (39 pts, 11-9-6)
Still the best overall team for my money if all things are equal and all clubs are in form going down the stretch despite their current run. Sporting has lost 4 of 5 but now have Graham Zusi back from injury and Kei Kamara returning soon. Claudio Bieler needs to find his early season form.
8/31 v Colorado, 9/7 v Columbus, 9/21 @ Toronto FC, 9/27 v Philadelphia, 10/5 @ Columbus, 10/9 @ Houston, 10/18 v DC, 10/26 @ Philadelphia
Philadelphia Union (38 pts, 10-8-8)
One of the three clubs that the Fire have a two "game-in-hand" advantage on and probably the most likely that they can catch without beating head to head. The Fire have lost twice to them this year so the win in Philadelphia a few weeks ago was especially big. The Union also have two games left apiece versus Sporting and Montreal.
8/31 v Montreal, 9/8 @ San Jose, 9/14 v Houston, 9/27 @ Sporting KC, 10/5 v Toronto FC, 10/12 @ DC, 10/19 @ Montreal, 10/16 v Sporting KC
New England Revolution (36 pts, 10-9-6)
The best defensive team in terms of goals allowed in the lot of contenders. They've also had difficulty scoring until recently. The Fire will need to beat them at Toyota Park on September 14 in order to offset the 2-0 loss two weeks ago. The Crew could do them some serious damage at the end of the fixture list.
8/30 @ Toronto FC, 9/8 v Montreal, 9/14 @ Chicago, 9/21 v DC, 9/28 v Houston, 10/5 @ New York, 10/12 @ Montreal, 10/19 v Columbus, 10/27 @ Columbus
Houston Dynamo (36 pts, 10-8-6)
Sunday's match is a big one for the Dynamo if they want to stay in the top five. They've also got three CONCACAF Champion's League games to contend with. The first one is tomorrow at home. The others are on 9/25 and 10/24. Despite the CCL congestion they have the same number of matches remaining as the Fire do.
9/1 @ Chicago, 9/4 @ Columbus, 9/8 v New York, 9/14 @ Philadelphia, 9/21 v Chivas USA, 9/28 @ New England, 10/4 v Montreal, 10/9 v Sporting KC, 10/20 v New York, 10/27 @ DC
Chicago Fire (34 pts, 10-10-4)
It's a cliché, but they hold their fate in their own hands. Beating Houston at home this coming Sunday is crucial because a trip to Seattle, where they've never won is on deck next. The remainder of the schedule isn't particularly difficult with FC Dallas the only Western Conference opponent. An easier schedule didn't help them during the last month of the season in 2012 however when an October collapse landed them in the play-in game.
9/1 v Houston, 9/7 @ Seattle, 9/11 @ Toronto FC, 9/14 v New England, 9/21 @ Columbus, 9/28 v Montreal, 10/4 @ DC, 10/12 @ FC Dallas, 10/19 v Toronto FC, 10/27 @ New York
|2||New York Red Bulls||39||26||1.5||11||9||6||38||34||4||22||11||16||-7|
|3||Sporting Kansas City||39||26||1.5||11||9||6||36||26||10||23||10||13||0|
|5||New England Revolution||36||25||1.44||10||9||6||34||24||10||21||13||13||-3|
It's important to note that the first three tie breakers are most wins, goals for, and goal differential. The Fire and Houston are currently at the bottom when it comes to goals scored.
The Fire's 8-3-3 record over the last fourteen games is tops in the league during that period but the hole they dug themselves into magnifies every loss significantly. I don't see them landing in one of the top three spots but in MLS' world of parity driven competition you can't rule anything out.