Despite going winless in the last five matches, the Chicago Fire are in good position to make the playoffs this season. Three points Sunday against New York City FC at Soldier Field (2:30 p.m. CT, WGN & ESPN+) will get the job done, and there are other paths to make it if they fail to win.
There’s no doubt making the playoffs would be fun. The Fire would either play Nashville SC or the New York Red Bulls in the opening round—both of which are winnable games. And as Jonathan Bornstein said last night: “Once you’re in, you’re in. You can get a good run of games going, and find yourselves champions. So that’s our plan. Get three points on Sunday, and never look back.” He’s not wrong.
But, stepping back, does merely making the playoffs mean the season was a success? After all, the Fire have only won five matches all season. They’ve dropped points from a winning position several times, and they’ve struggled to finish easy chances and to defend. On top of that, Major League Soccer extended the playoff field out to ten teams in the East, meaning it’s harder to miss the playoffs than it is to make it.
If you’re Toronto FC or the Philadelphia Union, a ninth or tenth seed would mean a failed season, barring a monster run in the postseason. But I’d argue it’s different for the Fire. This is a club that had so many changes in the offseason, so much turnover, that securing a postseason spot should be considered a success, albeit a small one. Long term, the standard needs to be much higher. If this club is ever going to make true inroads into this crowded sports market, the Fire need to be competing for MLS Cups. But for this season? A playoff spot is a success, because in the big picture, it’s a step toward what they need to become.
Does that mean missing out is a failure? For sure, at least in the short term. At Raphael Wicky’s introductory news conference, he said making the playoffs was one of his goals for 2020. But, even if the Fire do play their final game on Sunday, there are still plenty of positives. Mauricio Pineda is as solid of a rookie as it gets, and is on his way to becoming a star. Robert Berić, with his 11 goals, has a shot at the MLS Golden Boot and the Newcomer of the Year award, and he’d be a league MVP candidate on a better team. The combo of Gastón Giménez and Álvaro Medrán is one of the best six-eight midfield duos in the league. And, despite the team’s struggles, Raphael Wicky has earned respect and praise from his fellow coaches around MLS for the team’s style of play and work rate.
Whatever happens Sunday, the club made positive steps this season, both on and off the field. The team seems to be trending in the right direction. But, it sure would be nice to sneak in and do some damage in the playoffs.
And hopefully soon, we can return to the point where the bar for success isn’t so low, and every season, Fire fans can dream of a lot more than just making the postseason. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll look back at all of this as a failure.