Sunday's thorough 2-0 smother-job on FC Dallas has given the Fire a glimpse on the other side of the curtain, where their football is discussed rather than mocked and happiness reigns throughout the land (kinda). There's reason to believe a resurrection is possible - get hot, leverage the proven bits (Accam blowing minds, Maloney connecting, Shipp scheming) with just a bit cleaner play right around each goal ... it could work! Right?
As I write these words, it's about 150 minutes until the Men in Red kick off in Portland, and I have no idea what Frank Yallop is going to do. The first question is How important is this game? which leads us to Do we really think we have a shot at making a run in the playoffs? which really asks Do you believe the things you've said up until now? No leader should declare defeat while victory is yet possible, surely, so it's hard to begrudge the technical staff's reluctance to go there. We will have to judge by their decisions. Here are some of the possibilities:
- The staff privately believe the league season is over, but cannot say so in public for obvious reasons - team morale before a big knockout game chief among them. It's not unreasonable to look at the league table and say, "Ok, we are extreme long-shots here." The Fire are six points back of Montreal for the last playoff spot, yes, but Montreal has a game in hand; they're actually fourth in the East in points-per-game. New England look like the soft target there, but Jermaine Jones is coming back to full health just as Lee Ngyuen rediscovers his inner smile ... what I'm saying is, that calculation is easily defensible from a cold-eyed and logical point of view.
If that is the case, the season is down to winning two games: Wednesday's US Open Cup semifinal in Philadelphia, and the final of that competition at Toyota Park Sept. 30. The league season becomes a combination of mummer's farce and scouting exhibition, with the goal being to keep the players in form and sharp for those two games while also convincing the world that winning MLS is totally, absolutely, just the very most important-est thing in the world to everyone with the club. If this is the situation, expect to see mild rotation, especially of the tactical-advantage players - maybe David Accam just feels a twinge in warmups? Perhaps he could be ready from the bench? Joevin Jones, too, could succumb to a mild case of the coaching-staff-wants-me-rested-itis.
- The coaching staff truly believe they've been titanically unlucky through the first 6 months of this season. It's true that their DP axis hasn't spent a huge amount of time on the pitch together, and the results are better when they do. Do they see Gilberto as the guy who changes the balance? If all of Accam, Shaun Maloney, Harry Shipp and Gilberto are starting, they're going all in, every hand, like a guy who did too much coke in the third scene of a bad casino movie. Crazy thing is, sometimes that guy wins.
- The coaching staff send clear signals that their focus is the Open Cup, don't really try to hide it, and talk transparently about their intentions after the game. In that case, they say candidly (for example) "We think we can grind out a good road point with a counter-punching lineup" and rest the schemers (Maloney and Shipp) while giving the speed crew (Accam, Igboananike, Nyarko) a chance to run at a Portland defense that no one ever called fast. Or they devise some other combination tactic and rotation scheme in the hopes of smothering the energy out of the game from the off.
Only Mike Magee seems sure to miss this one through injury. He'll be joined on the sidelines by Matt Watson, whose vigorous two-footed tackle Sunday evening earned him a two-game suspension from MLS.
How to watch
Kickoff: 10 p.m. CT from Providence Park in Portland, Oregon
Radio en español: ESPN Deportes 97.5 FM