Last Sunday, another trip to the great northwest yielded another disappointing result. It was the same story that it has been all season long versus Vancouver: The Fire show up for half a game, defensive miscues and errors cost them, and what looked like a possibility of a point on the road turns instead to zero points and a disappointed fan base.
After a decent showing in the first half against the 'Caps, the 2nd half was a different story. Lazy defensive plays were a prelude to what was coming. Vancouver took advantage of the Fire on a Chicago corner as Knighton broke out quickly from the back and found Camilo, who made the Fire defense look like a division 3 team. The next 2 goals from Camillo and Manneh were just awful defensive miscues of no one challenging the man with the ball and no real urgency. Patrick Nyarko did get a consolation goal late in the game that was really just a little too late. The Fire remain winless and pointless in all games played against Cascadia teams.
This weekend the Fire welcome last place DC United to Toyota Park in what is a much needed 3 points for the "Men in Red," especially if they want to continue talking about the playoffs. DC are coming off a bye week in which they took on CD Chivas Guadalajara in a friendly at RFK last Friday. That gave Ben Olsen a chance to look at many of his players that may get a chance to impress this season with nothing to lose - DC sit bottom of the league with only 10 points from their first 19 games and are highly unlikely to make the playoffs this season.
This game for the Fire is a chance for them to turn their (mis)fortunes around and reclaim the form that they had during the 9 game unbeaten run from the end of May to the beginning of July. A loss for Frank and company will leave the Fire sitting 8 points out of a playoff spot and even on games played with Houston, and will sharpen the questions being asked of this #cf97 team.
Throughout the 2013 season Ben Olsen has not been consistent with his lineup or formation. Whether it be due to injury, form, or even national team call ups, Olson has fielded the same starters only once in consecutive weeks. So this is my best guess (but just a guess) at what Olsen may do for Saturday night:
Nyassi-De Rosario -Porter
Frank will more than likely field the same team that started against Vancouver. Still missing are Sean Johnson - off on USMNT duty - and Dan Paladini, who is still serving an extra one-game suspension tacked on to the red card he received versus SKC. The one change that I would make to the lineup is inserting Logan Pause back in the starting XI and have Jeff Larentowicz come off the bench - that is assuming Pause is ready to go and fully fit. But this is what I think Frank should go with:
Keys to the game
- Fire's defense versus themselves. We have seen in the past few games that the defense has played flat and has also had errors that have led to goals. Is it that the defense is fatigued and in need of a rest? If that's the case, how do you rest them with no depth in the roster? Berry and Anibaba have played every minute of every league game this year. Every now and then every player should have a mental health day to recharge the batteries. This game could give some confidence to the back line considering the opponent. Last time they played DC the Fire were able to shut them out despite giving up a few offensive chances. This team has to start tightening up the defense if they want to make a push towards the playoffs.
- Fire playing up to potential, not down to opponent. Last time these 2 teams played each other the Fire were just starting their 9 game unbeaten run and DC were at the bottom of the table with 5 points. Somehow the Fire gave up the advantage in every statistical category except shots and goals scored. This cannot happen again. The Men in Red have to show that they are the better team and outclass DC in every facet of the game. If they don't DC can take advantage of it because let's face it Olsen and United have nothing to lose. They are just going to be playing the role of the up setter and playing this kind of team can be more dangerous than playing a team that sits towards the top of the table. The Fire have to come out early and establish that they are the better team and that DC is at the bottom of the table for a reason.
Wildcards: Who to watch
For DC, I think there is one player that makes a difference in any game, and that is Perry Kitchen. Since being drafted by DC in 2011 Kitchen has excelled in the back for them. Whether it has been playing as the holding mid or in the center of the back line he has always done an admirable job. Look for him this Saturday as he will try to keep tabs on Alex and especially Magee. He will be looking to take those players out of the game in order to stall the Fire attack.
I'm going to go with Alex this game for the Fire. The past couple games he has seemed to be a bit sluggish but so has the rest of the team. This is a perfect game for him to show Frank - and especially the Fire nation - that he can perform in the central attacking midfield role. If he can get things going early and gain that bit of confidence, there should be no reason why he cannot dominate the center of the park. He has to be able to help connect passes out of the back to the attackers; that is something he has not been able to do the past couple games. I also think that if he gets a chance to shoot he should - that's one thing that he should try to do more often, considering he only has 11 shots for the season.
The Fire should view this game as a must win, especially playing at home against the worst team in the league. DC sits bottom of the table, has a league-worst -21 goal differential and has scored 8 goals in 19 games. This will be a good game for the Fire to shore things up defensively and try to work on having a good game in the back that should give this team more confidence. There is no way that I can pick against the Fire even though they are playing really flat at the moment. Like I said, this is a must win if they want to keep within striking distance of a playoff spot. I can see the "Men in Red" taking this one with a scoreline of 3-0. Goals from Magee, Duka, and Amirakwa.
So far this season, against teams out of a playoff spot, the Fire have claimed 15 of 21 possible points, which is not bad. We should be expecting this as they should be better than teams like Toronto, New England, and DC.
When it comes to points picked up versus those teams sitting in playoff spots, it is a different story. In 10 games against teams in playoff positions, the Fire have managed to pick up six points: A good win versus New York back in April, a point in KC in March, ties at RSL and at home versus Portland. Not too bad, some crucial points picked up in situations where it could have been worse, right?
The thing that makes this stat just awful, though, is that it is six points picked up out a possible 33. They have 16 games remaining and half of those are against playoff spot teams and the other half are against teams out of a playoff spot. Taking the numbers above into account, we could project the Fire to get 21 of the possible 48 points that are left in the season. This is not enough to make the playoffs as it will give them a total of 42 points on the season. Houston made the playoffs in 2012 with a point total of 53 points. The Fire have to start picking up points against the teams that are in playoff spots if they want to have any chance at making the playoffs.
Now knowing the numbers above, a question I ask to you, Fire nation, is it worth making a major move and burning allocation money now, when the chances to make the playoffs are low and the chances to win the MLS Cup are even lower? Should the Fire just throw everything into winning the US Open Cup and just worry about the league next year? Should the Fire start playing some of the kids like Pineda, Atouba, Bone, and Jumper in the league to see what they got?
Yes, I do know that the Fire are only 8 points back of a playoff spot with a game in hand. They could go on a tear for the rest of the season. What if they are only able to take six points over their next seven games? They play DC Saturday and then go on the road to play Houston, then Philadelphia, come back home to play Montreal, travel to New England, home to SKC, and at home to Houston. That is 2 games versus non-playoff spot teams and 5 versus ones that currently sit in the playoff spots.
We should know by Labor Day if the Fire have any chance at all in making the playoffs in 2013. Maybe by then we will be thinking of 2014 and what management can do to be competitive with all teams in the league. All of this is coming from the pessimist side of me. I want what everybody else wants - for the Fire to be competitive and challenge for league supremacy - but it is very hard to ignore numbers like these and the form that the team has been in all season.