Undoubtedly the most patent source of frustration that left Fire interim coach Brian Bliss bewildered upon return from the nation's capital last week was his side's flimsy mentality.
Content with the resolve showed during a two-game road stint in Canada toward the end of September and a come-from-behind victory over the New England Revolution, the exact opposite was on display in a listless 4-0 defeat at the hands of playoff-destined D.C. United.
With the Fire (8-19-6, 30 points) hosting MLS Supporters' Shield challenger New York Red Bulls (17-10-6, 57 points) at Toyota Park on Sunday (6 p.m. CT; CSN), Bliss will take a stab at wrapping up the regular season on a winning note. And, perhaps most importantly, mending the mentality against a technically savvy and diligent Red Bulls outfit.
“That’s been pretty much what I’ve been preaching since I took over here a month ago, that we have to change the way we think about the game but we also have to change the way we mentally approach the game," Bliss said after training Saturday, shaking his head. "Being half-in and half-out mentally is not good enough, and it’s very difficult to get wins as it is in this league. So you’ve got to be mentally there, and that’s the challenge that I have every week with these guys. Again, they apply it in training, but you have to apply it on a Saturday or Sunday."
[NBC SHOP: Buy a Fire jersey here]
What stands in front of Bliss and the Men in Red on Sunday is a match that holds little to no statistical matter. The Fire will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, and try to avoid becoming the lone team to finish the regular season with 20 losses in 2015. A handful of personnel changes are expected, of which hardly any will include younger players, as was previously broached.
Combating the midfield trio of Dax McCarty, Felipe and Sacha Kljestan will be critical. Of the five goals the Fire have conceded against Jesse Marsch's group this year, Kljestan has been directly involved in four, scoring two penalty kicks and assisting on two others.
"Dax and Felipe are good in the middle, so they’re comfortable bringing guys in the middle and getting numbers in there," Homegrown midfielder Harry Shipp said. "For us, it’s about starting early and hopefully getting them off their game in the first 30 minutes or so. Hopefully we can nick a goal, and if not, don’t panic, don’t force things and try not to give up any unfortunate goals going into halftime.”
From the neutral's perspective, the counterattacking verve put forth in the teams' previous meeting at Red Bull Arena was a joy to watch. From Shipp's standpoint, a commitment to balancing offensive and defensive assignments - which went missing in a 3-2 setback on Sept. 11 - will be even more paramount this time around.
“We’ve got some pretty good team speed all around, so it’s something we want to use, but it’s something that we want to balance," the 23-year-old added. "You saw it in other games this year where we kind of get into track meets with teams, we score some goals but we end up conceding as many, if not more goals than we score in those games. It’s about picking our chances when they turn the ball over, especially in their own half, and those mini-transition moments where you’re going 40-45 yards instead of 80-90 yards. If we’re able to keep the ball in their defensive half and transition when they turn it over there, I think we’ll be a little more successful.”
Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls
Kickoff time: 6 p.m. CT
Where: Toyota Park; Bridgeview, Ill.