Dan Santaromita

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.