The Fire have clinched a playoff spot, now the fun begins

When Toronto FC came to Toyota Park on Aug. 19 there was a big game atmosphere that hadn’t existed in Bridgeview for years, and certainly hadn’t existed since Veljko Paunovic took over as coach in 2016.

That game had some hype behind it as a potentially huge game in the Supporters’ Shield race. By the time Toronto came to town, the Fire had fallen back, losing four of the previous five games. Toronto’s 3-1 win was a decisive blow to the Fire’s chances of catching Toronto and the Reds are now on the verge of clinching the Shield.

What was significant about that game was the tension in the air and the fact that the crowd knew it was a big game. Saturday’s game against New York City FC (live on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live) is another big game with New York holding the crucial second spot, and the first-round bye that comes with it, in the Eastern Conference.

Whether or not the players and coaches of the Fire would admit it, they were likely feeling some pressure as the team lost six of seven games in July and August and later lost at a Philadelphia team that has been out of the playoff race for weeks. After the Fire clinched a playoff spot on Wednesday with a resounding win in San Jose, the pressure should be relieved. Entering the season, most Fire fans would have been happy to take a playoff berth, meaning the minimum standard has been achieved.

That’s what Dax McCarty said after the San Jose win: “I think if you want to be a successful club in Major League Soccer, it should be the bare minimum expectation every season to make the playoffs.”

So with the bare minimum out of the way, now it gets to the good stuff. Saturday’s game against NYCFC is a truly big game, something the club hasn’t experienced many of in recent years. The Toronto game was an early taste of a big game (and it showed how much better Toronto is than the Fire). Now, this is a game between two teams already headed to the playoffs and in a race for playoff seeding.

The Fire are four points behind NYCFC with three games left. Atlanta is a point ahead of the Fire and has four games remaining. Any chance of getting a first-round bye starts with a Fire win on Saturday. If New York wins, they clinch a top three seed.

Beyond seeding, the Fire also need to show they can beat Eastern Conference playoff teams. With the six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference appearing all wrapped up (barring a collapse by the New York Red Bulls), the Fire have a 2-6-2 record against those teams and an 0-5-1 mark on the road.

David Accam was rested for this game, not making the trip to San Jose, and Bastian Schweinsteiger could return. The German has missed the last four games, but was not listed on the injury report. Rushing back Schweinsteiger without training time in the past couple weeks could have long-term damage, but could also give the team a much-needed boost with one of the best teams in the league going to Toyota Park.

Let’s see what the Fire can do in a big game before the truly big games start in late October.

Chicago Fire vs. New York City FC

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (15-10-6, 51 points), NYCFC (16-8-7, 55 points)