Going in to the last match of the regular season this past Saturday, the Chicago Fire hoped to do enough to avoid the play-in game for the MLS playoffs. Unfortunately, a 1-1 draw with D.C United doomed the Fire to a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference; an ending that surely left a bitter taste for some fans considering that the Men in Red spent a significant portion of time challenging for the top spot.
The good news is that the Men in Red at least get to host a play-in game now against the Houston Dynamo. While an extra game would have been better to avoid, it sure beats a trip to BBVA Compass Stadium where the Dynamo have yet to lose in competitive action since the stadium opened in mid May.
But while a home game at Toyota Park in front of the Fire faithful on Halloween is a good thing, there are a number of questions for the club to address. After a stretch of winning 7 out of 8 in August and September, the Fire were hardly dominant in their final five games of the season, picking up only four points in that span.
Will that poor form carry over to the playoffs? Or will the Men in Red turn the page just in time to make a deep run? Here are some key factors to look at for Wednesday as the Dynamo and Fire meet for the fourth time this year:
The MLS season can be grueling and mid-week matches are never fun. However, the Fire seemed to particularly loathe these matches this year: out of seven weeknight (and one day) matches, the Fire won two, drew two and lost three. This is significant when compared to weekend games, in which the club won 15, drew four and lost nine.
The wins, a come-from-behind win against FC Dallas and a road win at Toronto FC were big, but perhaps not as comfortable as they could have been. In the losses, which include that devastating 3-1 loss at home to the Philadelphia Union earlier this month, the club seemed to be a step behind and a bit passive.
Now, this could all just be coincidence, but to win on Wednesday night, the Fire will need to come out with energy and take the game to the Dynamo. Which leads me to...
Score Early Again
In the first two meetings between the clubs this season, both clubs struggled to break through, scoring a goal apiece in two draws. That changed back on September 2 when the Fire took the regular season series with a 2-1 win in Bridgeview.
So how did the Fire do it? By taking advantage of miscues and putting away their opportunities.
Patrick Nyarko gave the Fire the lead in the first minute and within the first twenty minutes of the match, the Fire had a two-goal lead. Nyarko hadn't scored again until an early goal against DC this past Saturday. Using speed and an opportunistic eye for goal, the Fire will only help their cause by demoralizing the opposition before they can get into a rhythm.
The St. Louis connection
When you look at the regular season statistics for the Dynamo, two names in particular stand out: midfielder Brad Davis and forward Will Bruin.
The veteran Davis has been a catalyst for Houston all season, scoring eight goals and notching twelve assists. One of those assists came off a corner kick that was headed home by Brian Ching for a late consolation goal when they faced the Fire back in September.
Only in his second season, Bruin is well on his way to becoming one of the league's elite strikers. He notched 12 goals in the 2012 regular season, including one against the Fire when the clubs met for the first time back in April.
Keeping these two off the score sheet would be a good recipe for a Fire win.
Is the Fire back line ready?
Fire team writer Jeff Crandall took a look on Monday at how the Fire's two young center backs Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry would be able to handle their first MLS playoff appearances.
The rookie Berry looked like a lock for MLS Rookie of the Year until the Fire's late slide. Regardless, he and Anibaba have been consistent for the most part and should be prepared to attempt to keep the Houston offense at bay.
While the late slide may have tempered expectations slightly, the fact is, the Fire are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009. This is not an accomplishment to be taken lightly.
At the same time, other teams gained valuable playoff experience in that time. The Dynamo are the defending MLS Cup runners-up. While this isn't the same team as last year, will that experience be the difference? Or does the Fire have more overall quality to advance?
I feel torn about this game. I feel like it could go either way. However, I have confidence that Fire head coach Frank Klopas has the ability to take the next step and out duel Dynamo boss Dominic Kinnear and get just enough out of his team to get the Men in Red to the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Sporting KC. I'll go out on a limb and say Berry gets the game-winner in the first half.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 1-0 Houston Dynamo.
It won't be a picnic...
By James Coston