Before Week 16 of the MLS regular season had reached its last act, victories for New York City FC and the Montreal Impact Saturday night ensured the Chicago Fire's drop to last place in the Eastern Conference to finish the weekend with the least amount of points (14) in the league.
It was an unsavory pill to swallow for Frank Yallop, who, since rejoicing in the 3-0 shutout of Montreal at the end of May, has overseen a three-match losing skid against conference opponents mar his side in June.
Beginning with a 3-1 defeat at D.C. United on June 3, the Men in Red were delivered a crushing blow three days later by Kaká and Orlando City SC, who were gift wrapped three points in a late turnaround at Toyota Park. The latest league outing - a 2-0 loss to second-place New England Revolution on June 13 - further revealed the Fire's defensive fragility - surrendering eight goals in that span - and inability to resist sustained bouts of pressure despite relatively sturdy first half showings.
After a shaky win over Louisville City FC in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last week, competitive training sessions since and a favorable return to Toyota Park on Wednesday leads Yallop to believe a win against the Eastern Conference leaders may be all that is needed to spark his group to life.
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"Practice has been pretty sharp for the last few days after our win in the Cup where, again, we all saw the game," Yallop said Monday. "We didn't play particularly well and looked a bit disjointed, but we got through and won. It's something that breeds confidence. As a lot of MLS teams will tell you, one result or one thing that changes and all of a sudden you start to feel good about yourself and get on a run.
"We've had some tough games in the last three in MLS. We're at home; we're hoping we can jump on the front foot, get three points and put us back into the playoff picture."
For the Black and Red, a four-game stretch away from the confines of RFK Stadium begins, while the Men in Red hope to avoid losing four matches in a row for the fourth time (twice in 2002, once in 2007) in their history. Since a 1-0 victory on August 29, 2009, D.C. have also only emerged with four points from Bridgeview in six games.
The visitors enter the match on the back of a 2-1 comeback win over the Revolution, who granted Ben Olsen's side a generous, seven-point cushion atop the standings despite holding a 1-0 halftime advantage. It's a hard lesson that, three weeks on from disintegrating in similar fashion, still resonates with Yallop as he prepares for the return fixture.
"D.C. are a decent side, they just beat New England," Yallop added. "They did the same as us: scored in the first half, and then scored two goals in the second half. It happens to the best teams against someone like D.C.
"You learn from all parts of games. We lost against Salt Lake at home as well, and that wasn't a good game. The performance was okay; we created a ton of chances, but we gave the game away.
"We've just got to learn from it. We're banged up a little bit right now, but I'm excited about the prospects and how we're going to play in our fight for Wednesday night, because it's an important game for us."
D.C., who've amassed an astounding 5-4-1 record when conceding the first goal, have deftly become the preeminent escape gurus of MLS, while the corresponding scenario - in contrast - has been a particular soft underbelly for the Fire, who've compiled a 0-6-1 record when conceding first.
Wednesday's match, moreover, will be no picnic for the Men in Red. Yallop & Co. will be without the services of Shaun Maloney - out two to three weeks with a bulging disc in his lower back - David Accam (hamstring) and Matt Polster (yellow card accumulation). Mike Magee, who pulled up with a niggle in his hamstring before the New England match, has put himself in contention to be named to the 18 against D.C. and could provide a useful spark off the bench as he continues his resurgence from hip and knee surgeries.
Be sure to tune in to CSN+ for Pregame Live at 7 p.m. with Dan Kelly and Kevin Egan before kickoff at 7:30.