Fire

Fire's loss sets up critical match against DC United

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Fire's loss sets up critical match against DC United

Saturday was a strange night for Chicago soccer.

Arguably the best-played match of the season at Toyota Park was staged in an ideal soccer atmosphere, but it didnt involve the Fire. The citys Major League Soccer club was in Boston, playing a bad game in a bad setting at a crucial point in the season.

Toyota Park welcomed the top two teams in the current FIFA Womens World Rankings, and it drew a sellout crowd announced at 19,522. The stadiums seating capacity is 20,000 and the Fire drew 20,563 against the Los Angeles Galaxy in its lone sellout of this season, but forget the seeming contradiction in numbers. The Olympic gold medalists from the U.S. played Germany to a 1-1 draw before a most-attentive packed house in Bridgeview.

The Fire, meanwhile, went into its last road match of the MLS regular season against the New England Revolution with the chance to take over first place in the Eastern Conference. Putting on a performance that captain Logan Pause admitted was "kind of blah," the Fire took a 1-0 loss that damaged its playoff positioning.

Not only that, but the atmosphere in New England reflected the problems still plaguing 17-year old MLS. One of its charter teams, the Revolution announced a crowd of 25,534 not bad numerically, but that left Gillette Stadium only one-third filled. The home of footballs New England Patriots is clearly not suited for soccer.

The Fire-New England match was played on artificial turf clearly marked for a National Football League game. The field was also too narrow for an MLS match. The Revs need a new home field, one like most every other team in the league.

Those long-range issues aside, the Fire (17-11-5) put itself in a precarious position for this Saturdays regular season home finale against D.C. United (17-10-6). United climbed ahead of the Fire and into second place in the Eastern Conference by beating the Columbus Crew 3-2 in another Saturday night matchup.

The loss in New England, coupled with Sporting Kansas Citys scoreless draw against New York, killed the Fires chances of finishing in first place in the Eastern Conference. Now the Fire could finish as high as second or as low as fifth, depending on the last round of regular season matches.

Finishing second or third would mean a spot in the two-game Eastern semifinal series, to be played Nov. 3 or 4 and Nov. 7 or 8. Finishing fourth or fifth would mean a one-game knockout match on Wednesday or Thursday on the home field of the No. 4 seed to determine the last team in the conference semifinals.

The five Eastern playoff teams were determined over the weekend, but not the order of finish. SKC (17-7-9) needs a draw in its last match at home against the Philadelphia Union to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs. D.C. United (17-10-6) could keep its hopes alive for the top spot with a road win in Bridgeview. New York (15-9-9) sits in the fourth spot with only a Saturday road match at Philadelphia remaining. Fifth-place Houston (14-8-11) concludes at Colorado on Saturday night.

Though theres plenty of uncertainty regarding the postseason, theres no doubt that the Fire must play better the rest of the way than it did under the less-than-ideal circumstances in New England.

"We really just needed to raise our energy level. Thats really what it was about. We just came out flat in the first half," said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. That resulted in the Fire giving up the first goal for the 20th time in 33 matches a revealing statistic that must be improved for the big matches ahead.

The Fire has been a bad team on artificial turf, going 2-9-2 on such surfaces over the last three years, so it wasnt surprising the club struggled in its latest adventure off grass. Coach Frank Klopas didnt want to risk injury to Arne Friedrich, the veteran German defender, on the New England field with a playoff berth already assured. Friedrich was a healthy scratch.

"We dont play on turf much, and we come here and the field is smaller, the bounce is different, we dont practice on turf," said Klopas. "Its different.Its not like we came here underestimating anyone.We just werent that share in the final third when we had opportunities to be so."

Klopas brought Dan Gargan in at right back and moved Jalil Anibaba into the middle against the Revs. Friedrichs absence had little to do with the disappointing outcome, as the defenders limited New England to one shot on goal a 25-yarder by 17-year old Diego Fagundez in the 17th minute. Fagundez was one of several youngsters used by coach Jay Heaps as New England (8-17-8) wound down its disappointing season.

Fagundez goal snapped a 196-minute scoreless streak for New England. The Revs became the first Eastern team to win a season series from the Fire, which has won season series against SKC, New York, Houston, Columbus, Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto. The Fire came out a 4-2 loser in its lone meeting with D.C. United, an Aug. 22 battle on Uniteds field.

USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

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USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

Stadium talk is always circling around Major League Soccer and that goes double for the Chicago Fire, which has been criticized for playing in suburban Bridgeview since Toyota Park opened in 2006.

That's why the Chicago Tribune's story about a United Soccer League expansion team playing at a proposed 20,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof in Chicago is such a big deal. According to the report and confirmed by a USL spokesperson, real estate developer Sterling Bay has purchased the rights to a USL expansion team. The stated goal is to begin play in 2020.

The details of the stadium are not finalized so the features and capacity could still change.

The proposed location of the stadium is along the North Branch of the Chicago River between the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the Kennedy Expressway. The stadium was previously mentioned as part of Sterling Bay's bid to bring Amazon's second headquarters to Chicago. Apparently, the stadium being built is not contingent on Amazon coming to Chicago.

Further information from Sterling Bay said that "announcements on ownership and team structure will come at a later date." The team does not yet have a name, but fans will be included in the naming process.

A 20,000-seat stadium and a retractable roof will make for a fancy and impressive, but also expensive venue and a USL team as a primary tenant may prove difficult to justify the cost. The location itself would be an easier sell to draw in fans than Toyota Park out in Bridgeview. However, minor league soccer may not excite local residents in large number.

The USL had 30 teams in 2017 with eight more teams planned to join by 2019. This past season, only two USL teams averaged above 10,000 in attendance: FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC. Both of those are prime MLS expansion candidates and Cincinnati beat the Fire in the U.S. Open Cup in front of 32,287 fans in June.

Many USL clubs are either owned/operated by MLS teams or are affiliated with an MLS team. The Fire switched from Saint Louis FC to the Tulsa Roughnecks as its affiliated club in 2017, sending players to Tulsa to gain playing time as opposed to sitting on the bench with the Fire.

According to the Tribune's story, the stadium would also try to attract other events such as international soccer matches, college football, college basketball and concerts. Rugby and lacrosse were also named in documentation sent by Sterling Bay. Sterling Bay has also yet to present formal plans and still needs to gain zoning approval.

At the Fire's end of the season media availability on Nov. 7, general manager Nelson Rodriguez was asked about the proposed stadium and if he or MLS had been contacted about it.

“I can’t speak about MLS," Rodriguez said. "I don’t know if they have or have not. I have not. I haven’t spoken, been approached by anyone. I’m not sure I would be the person they approach or speak to, but I’m not aware of any conversations.”

The Fire moving to this stadium could be an ideal solution for both parties. An MLS team with an existing fan base would have an easier time drawing big crowds. Boosted by the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Fire drew crowds of 20,000 or more six times in 2017. The regular season average of 17,383 was the highest since moving to Toyota Park and highest since the club's inaugural, championship-winning season in 1998.

However, things aren't that simple. The Fire are locked into a 30-year lease with Bridgeview and Toyota Park, which the Fire have played in since 2006. Getting out of that would require a significant buyout or a breach of contract.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?