A few weeks ago on the CHGO Fire podcast, I mentioned that the Fire would need 12 points out of 15 from their final five games in July before I’d consider them back in the playoff race.
Immediately after that, they fell flat on their faces in the second half against the Columbus Crew, giving up three goals, and I declared them dead. If they couldn’t hold a 2-0 halftime lead at home, I figured, there’s no way they’d have any chance of making up a nine point gap, with a glut of teams between them and the playoff line.
Three straight wins later, and I’m more than happy to be wrong. A win this Saturday against Atlanta United, and the Fire will have those 12 points. Depending on results from a few other games, the Fire might actually be above the playoff line for the first time since the spring. But with 12 games to go, can they actually make the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2017? Here are a few reasons why they might, and why they might not:
Why they might: Chris Mueller and Rafael Czichos
These two have been, hands down, the Fire’s best players this season. The Köln Cowboy and Woodfield Mall Messi have done what the team’s three designated players could not–grab their teammates by the scruff of the neck, pull them out of the inconsistent stupidity, and steer them toward something resembling a winner. It’s been refreshing to watch both play with toughness, confidence, and joy.
Why they might: Shaq’s finally delivering
Xherdan Shaqiri had talked a big game at the beginning of the season, but hadn’t delivered close to the minimum standards for a guy making $8.15 million this season. At that kind of money, Shaqiri should be competing for an MLS MVP award, and should not be outshined by his teammates making far, far less.
In fairness, the Swiss star has been plagued by a hamstring injury, but it looks like things are starting to turn a corner. He was brilliant in the 3-1 win over Vancouver on Saturday, and has said recently he’s starting to feel more like himself. If Shaqiri can make a strong push to end the season, it will not only help him going into the World Cup this November, it will help the Fire make a run, too.
Why they might: Mauricio Pineda
The Fire’s three-game winning streak has come with Mauricio Pineda playing in central midfield in the No. 8 role. Designated Player and lightning rod for Fire fans, Gastón Giménez, has missed most of the last three matches (he came out of the Seattle match with a hamstring injury), and Pineda has more than filled his shoes during that run. This is a perfect example of Fire fans’ frustrations with the Argentinian–if a Homegrown player can step in and the team improves in his absence, why can’t the Fire use that big money DP salary elsewhere?
Pineda has been on the field for the Fire’s two best stretches of the season–the first few games (filling in for Federico Navarro) and the last three (in place of Giménez). When Pineda plays, good things happen. Look at it this way: When Pineda plays more than 45 minutes, the Fire have five wins and five draws, with only three losses.
He’s played more than 45 minutes in five of the Fire’s seven wins this season, and in all five draws. Yet, he’s only played more than 45 minutes in three of Chicago’s 10 losses.
Why they might not: Toronto FC (and a few other teams)
Bob Bradley’s bunch has majorly retooled. Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, and a time traveling early 2010s version of Michael Bradley had Toronto FC looking like the best team in the league in a 4-0 win over Charlotte over the weekend. You had to figure it was only a matter of time before the elder Bradley got things going north of the border. The Reds are four points back of the Fire, but they seemed poised to make a run.
Toronto isn’t the only team the Fire will need to fend off. The Crew have been solid since signing Cucho Hernandez. You have to figure Bruce Arena might have something up his sleeve with New England, and Wayne Rooney is sure to spark something with D.C. United, although it might be too late there.
Bottom line, there are a lot of teams in a similar spot to the Fire. Every point matters.
Why they might not: They’re the Fire
It’s a different group of players, with a different owner, a different coaching staff, and a different sporting director. There’s no good reason why this club’s culture of losing should continue. It makes no logical sense.
Yet, for some reason, it persists. Ezra Hendrickson has tried to combat this head on, saying a number of times they won’t be known as a club that blows leads and finds ways to lose. But, until they prove that to themselves, they will be. The last three matches are a small sample size, but maybe things are starting to change.
A win over Atlanta on Saturday would be another huge step toward lifting that cloud off of this club.
Come Tailgate with Us!
The Fire-Atlanta United match is the first part of doubleheader at Soldier Field, with two of the NWSL’s top teams–the Chicago Red Stars and the San Diego Wave facing off in the second match. One ticket gets you into both, so we figured this would be a fun time to celebrate soccer in Chicago. A bunch of us from CHGO will be hanging out on top of the Waldron Deck starting at 2 p.m., so swing by and have a Hazy Pitch with us! The fine folks at Revolution Brewing are sponsoring our event, so you know it’ll be fun.
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