By JJ Stankevitz
On May 30, the Fire canned coach Carlos de los Cobos after stumbling to a 1-4-6 record through the first three months of the regular season. It was the latest change in a season full of transition for the Men in Red, and it left the squad with an uncertain future.
Four and a half months later, the Fire find themselves in a position at least one player never could've imagined: they're in contention for a playoff berth.
"Honestly, back then, no," said Patrick Nyarko when asked if he could've envisioned the Fire still being alive for the playoffs in October after de los Cobos was fired. "We all didn't know where our future lied. We didn't know what was going to happen next."
What happened next was the Fire promoted technical director Frank Klopas to the position of interim head coach. The move didn't yield immediate dividends on the field, as by August, the Fire were scraping the bottom of the MLS table.
But the attitude of the team was completely different under Klopas. Players began watching video of not only their previous game but also of opponents. Detailed scouting reports were made available, along with projected starting lineups based on more than their opponent's previous game. And, under Klopas, every player felt welcome wearing a Fire jersey.
"He came in with a real positive attitude and he included everyone. That's the difference between him and Carlos," said Nyarko. "He included everyone in game planning and built players' confidence, especially guys that had not played that much."
For all the changes in attitude and for all the improved confidence, though, the Fire still struggled to come away with three points in their matches. Draws plagued the Fire, with their MLS-record 15th coming Aug. 18 to D.C. United at Toyota Park.
"I look back at games and think, 'how did not pull three points off?'" said defender Cory Gibbs. "You look at those 16 ties, and at least more than half of them we could've said that forthose ties could've easily been wins and we could've been in a better position."
Interestingly enough, though, one of those draws may have kick-started the Fire's run from afterthought to contender.
On Aug. 3, the Fire tied Philadelphia 1-1 at Toyota Park. Klopas decided to shuffle his team's formation leading up to the match, with Nyarko moving up front alongside striker Dominic Oduro and the team's midfielders shifting into a diamond formation (one up, one back, two wide).
It wasn't that match that sparked the team, though. Ten days later, the Fire went into New York with a game plan that didn't involve Nyarko and Oduro up front. But a few hours before the match, Klopas and his coaching staff informed the team that Nyarko and Oduro would be up front.
The Fire hadn't practiced in that formation all week.
"It was a little ballsy going against New York on the road," said Nyarko. "It came out of nowhere."
Sixteen minutes into the match, Nyarko found Oduro for an equalizing goal. Midfielder Sebastian Grazzini put the Fire up with a goal in the 24th minute, and while New York ultimately knotted the match at two, the team's attack was sparked.
"Ballsy? No, I call it tactically smart," dryly said Klopas, later adding that he made the move with full confidence his team would respond well to it.
Since the match against New York, the Fire have gone 5-1-1, picking up 16 crucial points. With 37 on the year, the Men in Red still have quite a bit of work to do, but with three games remaining -- all against teams ahead of them in the standings -- a chance certainly exists that the Fire wind up in the postseason.
The list of playoff scenarios is long and complicated, although the only thing that matters to the Fire is that they win out. Nine points means they'll finish the year with 46. It won't guarantee them a playoff spot, but at least they can end the 2011 season knowing they finished strong.
"Everything doesn't mean anything if we don't make the playoffs," said Gibbs. "Yes, we feel better that we've done better, but it's meaningless if we don't win these games and get into the playoffs."
So much for that. But even if the Fire don't end up in the playoffs, these last three games will have a playoff atmosphere and intensity.
That's probably nothing in which anybody on the Fire will take solace. Missing the playoffs means those early and mid-season draws will burn more. Every shot off the goalpost, every strike that sailed high, every missed pass and defensive assignment will twist the knife a little more.
The best way to put those missed opportunities to bed is to win out.
"It's about now," said Klopas. "We can't look in the past and we can't look at what happened or might happen."