Matt Polster

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Can Fire secure a return to Toyota Park in the regular season home finale?

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USA TODAY

Can Fire secure a return to Toyota Park in the regular season home finale?

With 32 games complete in a 34-game season, it’s hard to say the standings lie at this point.

Some of the teams are very tight, but there’s no secret which teams are good, which teams are bad and which teams mediocre. In fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the Fire have not looked like an elite MLS team for a while despite a solid 3-1-2 record in the past six matches. Still, players on the Fire are chasing the level the team achieved during its 12-match MLS unbeaten run in the middle of the season.

“I think we’re just trying to refine and get back to where the time where we were unbeaten,” defender Matt Polster said. “I think we’re trying to find that form again. San Jose I thought we did a really good job and I think that was kind of what we were looking for and then I thought we did that in stretches for New York City, but... I thought we could have done better in the game entirely.”

The Fire hasn’t won consecutive games since June. Occasional glimpses of quality play recently have inspired hope in Fire fans that the team is back on track, but consistency has been elusive. The 3-0 win against D.C. on Sept. 16 was followed by a dud in Philadelphia a week later. A shockingly good 4-1 win in San Jose, a win that clinched a playoff berth, preceded an entirely forgettable home draw against NYC in a big game.

On Sunday, the Fire host Philadelphia in the final home game of the regular season. The match, which will be televised on NBC Sports Chicago+ (channel finder) with coverage starting at 3:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live, is big for playoff seeding, but is also a good chance for a confidence-boosting win with the playoffs less than two weeks away.

The Union beat the Fire 3-1 three weeks ago. What can the Fire do better from that game?

“I think we can do everything better,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “Every game is a different game, even as we play the same opponent, especially because different momentums of both teams. When that happened both teams were still in playoff run and with that kind of pressure, but now it’s different.”

Philadelphia took a 3-0 lead in that game, but was eliminated from playoff contention last week. The Fire’s struggles against Eastern Conference playoff teams will remain a concern, but perhaps showing the proper adjustments to beat a team that just beat them badly would be an encouraging sign for the Fire.

“I think we need to figure out how to break them down better,” Polster said of Philadelphia. “They did a good job against us defensively, kind of making it difficult to play through. If we can find ways to help them out, we’ll scope it out later in the week.”

A win by the Fire coupled with a Columbus draw or loss in Orlando, which will be Kaka's final home game for the Lions, would lock up at least a home game in the first round of the playoffs for the Fire.

Injury wise, Juninho will miss his fifth straight game due to a knee injury and Bastian Schweinsteiger was listed as questionable, but missed time in training this week.

Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: NBC Sports Chicago+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins Sunday at 3:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire 15-10-7 (52 points), Union 10-13-9 (39 points)

Fire Talk Podcast: Rehashing U.S. Soccer's failure and the Fire's 20th anniversary

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USA TODAY

Fire Talk Podcast: Rehashing U.S. Soccer's failure and the Fire's 20th anniversary

The Fire have clinched a playoff berth, the U.S. is out of the World Cup and the Fire's 20th anniversary took place last weekend.

That's plenty for Shane Murray (MLSsoccer.com) and Dan Santaromita to talk about. They open by breaking down the failure of the U.S. men's national team to qualify for the World Cup.

Next, hear from Fire defenders Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster as they talk about their reactions to the defeat and if they think the national team is in their future. Finally, Dan and Shane look ahead to the final two weeks of the season for the Fire.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: