Luis Solignac

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

In the Fire’s resurgent 2017 season, the team earned its playoff berth on the back of a lot of dominant wins against bad or mediocre teams mixed in with some impressive wins against good teams from the Western Conference.

But one thing is missing: wins against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The field of six teams is all but set, with Columbus clinching on Saturday to join the Fire, Toronto, Atlanta and Saturday’s opponent, New York City FC. The New York Red Bulls are limping into the playoffs, but still have a firm grasp on the final playoff spot.

After Saturday’s 1-1 draw against NYCFC, the Fire’s record against those five teams is now 2-6-3. Each of the five teams has at least one win against the Fire and top seed Toronto has two.

Those two wins have questionable value as well. The Fire beat Columbus came in April. The Crew made changes this summer and are currently on an eight-game unbeaten streak. The Fire also beat Atlanta when its two best players, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, came off the bench.

So with the MLS playoffs just under a month away, Saturday’s game was a chance to not only make up ground in the standings, but to prove the Fire can beat good teams in the East. The Fire hold an impressive 5-1-1 record against the eight teams jockeying for playoff spots in the Western Conference, but those teams aren’t in the Fire’s immediate playoff future.

“Obviously we don’t feel good about the tie,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have two games more. We will build up the mood that will prepare the team now. We will first recover and we’ll look towards winning all six points. Obviously we know that’s easy and simple to say, but it’s not easy to do, but we are confident in our team.”

Paunovic opened his press conference on a somber note by speaking about Michael de Leeuw’s injury. The Dutch forward suffered a knee injury, was helped off the field by two trainers and was subbed off in the 30th minute. Paunovic said it “doesn’t look good,” but the team is awaiting MRI results to see the extent of the damage. If it is significant enough to keep him out of the playoffs, that would be a blow to the team.

The Fire remain in fourth place after Saturday’s games. Atlanta, which is in third-place with one more point and one more game remaining than the Fire, drew at New England. Columbus won to move within two points of the Fire for the final hosting spot in the first round, but the Crew’s final two games are on the road so the Fire appear likely to finish fourth.

[RELATED: See the latest standings and scenarios in the playoff tracker]

Despite having clinched, no one on the team was thinking about feeling relaxed with that accomplishment out of the way.

“It took a little bit of pressure off, but we’re still focusing on getting a top spot in the conference,” midfielder Djordje Mihailovic said. “Maybe second place, third place. That’s what we’re going for. There’s no letting off any bit.”

The Fire next play on Oct. 15 after MLS takes a break for international matches. Philadelphia comes to Toyota Park for the final regular season home match and the following Sunday the Fire play at Houston.

“I think we got to get back onto the game we did in San Jose,” forward Luis Solignac said of the team's 4-1 win on the road three days before. “It was a perfect example to build on. Be sharp with a killer instinct in the final third, take the chances and I think that’s our focus. Keep organized and keep our minds in the right way that it’s win these two games to get in the best shape to the playoffs.”

Fire clinch first playoff berth since 2012

Fire clinch first playoff berth since 2012

Just when things were looking dour for the Fire, the team delivered arguably its best road performance of the season and the reward was the club’s first playoff berth since 2012.

The Fire suffered an ugly loss in Philadelphia on Saturday and headed to San Jose without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and David Accam. On top of that, the day began with the two teams directly ahead of the Fire in the Eastern Conference standings, New York City FC and Atlanta, both picking up wins.

However, losses by Montreal and New England earlier on Wednesday meant the Fire could clinch a playoff berth with a win or draw at San Jose. The Earthquakes had lost just once at home, but the draw part of that equation was never necessary in a 4-1 Fire win.

“I feel really happy and proud. We achieved the playoffs,” Nemanja Nikolic said on the postgame interview on CSN. “It’s amazing, but we need to push like (we have) until now. We have more games and we want to be in the best position.”

It was the kind of performance that will give Fire fans confidence in the team again after the Fire struggled for much of the past three months. The damage of the recent slump is already done though with a top-two seed and a first-round bye remaining unlikely, even with the win.

However, Wednesday’s win also made a home game in that first-round increasingly likely. Fifth-place Columbus is four points behind the Fire with three games remaining and the Crew only has one more home game.

The Fire host New York City FC on Saturday. Both teams rested key players on Wednesday to prepare for that game. Accam didn’t travel with the team in an effort to keep him fresh for that big game. David Villa, NYCFC’s star forward, didn’t start in the team’s 1-0 win in Montreal. Villa played 29 minutes off the bench.

The Fire’s win in San Jose also had a few individually noteworthy moments:

  • Nemanja Nikolic scored two goals to bring his season total to 20, a new club record.

“I am really proud that I am a record-holder of this club,” Nikolic said. “This is my first year. 20 goals in my first year and three games more, it’s not bad. This pushes me to work harder.”

  • Djordje Mihailovic, an 18-year-old homegrown midfielder, scored his first career goal and had an assist. In the halftime interview on the broadcast, he said he was trying to play with no pressure.
  • Richard Sanchez, a goalkeeper the Fire acquired in August, made his first start for the team. He made eight saves before losing the shutout in the 87th minute.

Notes from the rewatch: The Fire's second half defensive issues

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: The Fire's second half defensive issues

The Fire headed to Philadelphia on Saturday with a good chance to get some points on the road against a team out of the playoff race.

However, things rarely come easy on the road in MLS and the Fire got another lesson in that. Despite having the run of play and creating more quality chances in the first half, the Fire stared at a halftime deficit after conceding soon after a set piece.

The surprising part was the second half, where the Fire's defense gave up a number of chances and two early goals to put the game away. Here's a look at what happened to the Fire's defense and how the shorthanded midfield is coping.

Philadelphia's fullbacks play key role

The recent injuries to Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster showed how key the play of the outside backs are in the Fire's system. The Fire's inability to create through the middle of the field and the quality Vincent and Polster (and Patrick Doody when he played for Vincent and provided four assists in seven starts) have shown in the attack has made those two very important to the Fire.

Philadelphia used fullbacks to great effect as well on Saturday, and the Union's pair of Fabinho and Keegan Rosenberry ultimately outshined Vincent and Polster. Both Union fullbacks had assists, created multiple other chances and overloaded the Fire's defense by adding numbers to the attack.

Rosenberry's assist came after a corner kick was only partially cleared, but he did make a nice move to give himself space for the cross and put in a good ball. Fabinho went for the long ball a lot and had some bad turnovers, but he got forward enough to be a nightmare for the Fire's defense. Check out this look at the third goal:

Fabinho actually played a role in two goals. His low cross in the ninth minute, which was the only decent chance Philly created from the run of play in the first half, was cleared for a corner. That corner led to the first goal.

Philadelphia lost the midfield battle to the Fire, but got numbers forward when they had the opportunity to overwhelm the Fire's defense and did so with much better effect after halftime.

Philly's second-half surge

In the first half it appeared the only way Philadelphia was going to score was through a set piece. The Union created a decent number of them, but didn't create anything from the run of play.

Things changed in the second half with the two goals and a pair of missed headers that came from crosses all coming from open play in the second half. The Fire were being more aggressive while trailing and conceded chances on the counter, but also had some key turnovers. Without Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Fire's defense seemed to get exposed more often.

Philadelphia ended up outshooting the Fire 15-11 and had a 6-5 edge in shots on target. The Union also had more corners (6-3) and crosses (23-14). It ended up being a resounding win for the Union.

Fire display "patience" for only goal

In the first half Fire coach Veljko Paunovic was seen and heard yelling "Patience, patience!" to his players, even while the team was trailing 1-0. When things were going good for the Fire, it was often with methodical, deliberate buildups that were from strings of 10 or more passes in a row.

There probably wasn't as much of that as Paunovic or the Fire would like, thus him yelling it to his team, but the team's only goal of the game came after a 21-pass buildup. Polster crossed to Nemanja Nikolic, who made an impressive flick in the general direction of Luis Solignac. Solignac, who had subbed into the game fewer than 10 minutes before, got inside position on Rosenberry and buried it.

At this point, the Fire will not suddenly become a team which can build through the middle of the field. The Fire rely on good service from the fullbacks and on this occasion Polster provided a good ball and Nikolic and Solignac made plays to turn it into a goal.