New York Red Bulls

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

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USA TODAY

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.

Notes from the rewatch: Why were the Fire satisfied with a home draw?

Notes from the rewatch: Why were the Fire satisfied with a home draw?

Saturday's Fire-Red Bulls contest won't win any awards for entertainment or aesthestic quality. Neither team completed passes at a high rate nor was able to pepper the opposing goal.

So when the match finished a 1-1 draw it was probably a fair result. Neither attack can feel like it created a ton of chances nor was really threatening to the opposition and neither defense can come away feeling great after failing to come up with a clean sheet. The Fire completed 66 percent of passes while the Red Bulls came in just slightly better at 72 percent. Both of those are well below a satisfactory rate for two teams which put effort into controlling possession.

Performance aside, coach Veljko Paunovic and his players said they were happy to get a point at home against a team below them in the standings. Here's a look at that, along with the Red Bulls' dominant start.

Red Bulls owned the first 10 minutes

Bradley Wright-Phillips' goal in the seventh minute came soon after a corner kick and the way the opening minutes were going, it seemed to be coming. The Fire couldn't keep the ball out of the defensive half for the first 10 minutes.

In the seven minutes before the Red Bulls goal, the Fire completed more than two passes in a row on one occasion, all of which were in the defensive half. The Fire completed 16 of 33 passes in the first 10 minutes.

Whether the Fire was surprised by the Red Bulls' pressure, which shouldn't have happened, or was simply just slow out of the gate, it proved costly. The Red Bulls managed to close down passing lanes and had a huge territorial advantage in the opening part of the match.

New York came out in an unsual formation, which was tough to get a read on. There is a lot of fluidity in Jesse Marsch's system and to try to explain what they were doing would be beyond my knowledge of soccer tactics. I asked Frank Klopas about it when I saw him at halftime in the press box and he said it was basically a 5-4-1, but it shifted depending on what the wing backs were doing.

Either way, the Red Bulls caught the Fire off guard from the start.

Then the Fire improved

After Wright-Phillips' goal, the Red Bulls didn't have another shot the rest of the half. The Fire's first shot didn't come until 25 minutes into the game, but the improvement was evident.

The problem was the only shot that came close was a Michael de Leeuw effort which looked like it was going off target until getting deflected by a defender and hitting the crossbar. It was a good show of skill from de Leeuw, but that was pretty much it for the first half.

The Fire picked up the pressure in the second half and that led to the goal, which also came from an impressive show of skill from de Leeuw on the assist.

But what about those last 20 minutes?

After the game, Paunovic said the Fire had the better of the chances and were pushing for the win. The first part was definitely true on the whole. The shot total favored the Fire 14-5.

“I think as I remember we had more opportunities in this game, as I can remember it," Paunovic said during his fiery postgame press conference. "I think we were the team that was pushing hard to get that tie and then we were still pushing to win the game."

The pushing for the win part didn't show up on the field. With neither team playing particularly well, neither one put another shot on goal in the final 20 minutes. In fact, the Red Bulls didn't have another shot on target after scoring in the seventh minute.

However, a simple look at the passing charts for both teams show where the ball was (the Fire's defensive third) and where it wasn't (the Red Bulls' defensive third). Here's the Fire's passing chart for the final 20 minutes (attacking from bottom to top, green passes are completed, yellow passes led to shots and red passes were not completed):

Note the lack of passes in and near the box and the lack of completed passes beyond midfield. Now look at the Red Bulls' passing chart for the final 20 minutes:

The obvious relative density of passes shows the territorial advantage the Red Bulls had down the stretch. So no, the Fire did not push for the win. That's not to say the team was necessarily playing for the draw, but New York was certainly the aggressor late.

There are practical reasons why the Fire said they were happy with the draw. The Fire didn't allow the Red Bulls to gain ground in the standings and remained four points ahead of New York, although the Red Bulls have a game in hand. The Fire's closing schedule includes just two playoff teams out of the final six matches so this could have been a case of trying to fight another day. Is that good enough though?

However, this isn't what Paunovic has been preaching since he took over. Paunovic talks about trying to control and win every game, even on the road. That's why it was jarring to see him and the team not only satisfied with the home draw, but "happy with it" as de Leeuw said after the game.

Draw continues troubling trend for Fire

Draw continues troubling trend for Fire

The MLS playoffs are less than two months away and Saturday’s draw inched the Fire closer to the postseason. The question is how the team will do once it gets there.

With the 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls, the Fire hold a 2-6-2 record against the other five teams currently occupying playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. That’s only ahead of Columbus for the worst mark in that category among the six teams:

Toronto 5-1-3 (18 points)

New York City FC 5-2-2 (17 points)

Atlanta 4-3-1 (13 points)

Red Bulls 3-2-3 (12 points)

Fire 2-6-2 (8 points)

Crew 2-7-1 (7 points)

The draw also meant the Red Bulls took four points out of six in the season series. Toronto swept the Fire head-to-head and New York City FC also beat the Fire in the only meeting between the two teams this year. The Fire host NYCFC on Sept. 30, which is the last game against a conference playoff rival on the Fire’s schedule.

So is it a worrying sign for the Fire? Coach Veljko Paunovic chose to praise the point against the Red Bulls instead of complaining about failing to win at home against a team lower in the standings.

“This is a great point,” Paunovic said. “We played against one of the best teams in the league with huge experience, huge resources, great team on the field, sportsmen and everything. They push hard and we push hard. That’s what it is. That is what it’s going to take from now on. Every single game like this we have to play. We have to grind, we have to push, we have to give our best and the guys did that. Bravo them and fantastic, fantastic job from everyone. One point from this game means a lot. It can be decisive for the playoffs.”

Paunovic was as animated and fired up as he has shown in a press conference at home since he was hired before last season. He also convinced the team that the draw was a good result.

“I think we are the winners today,” said Michael de Leeuw, who assisted on the Fire’s goal. “We could have won the game, but at the end you see them pushing so at the end I think a 1-1 is the correct result. I think we’re happy with it.

“We knew also that we couldn’t lose this game because then with the game left for them they could have jumped over us. So for us it’s a great point.”

[RELATED: Nemanja Nikolic ends goal drought, but defers the credit]

The draw as an individual result isn’t bad, and it does at least keep the Red Bulls at bay in the standings. However, it was another chance for the Fire to show it can play with the best teams in the league. Home draws don’t exactly inspire confidence in that regard, especially now that the Fire have failed to win in three straight at home.

The good thing for the Fire, at least as far as the regular season is concerned, is that only two more playoff teams are on the remaining schedule. The finale is at Houston, which is undefeated at home. That should allow the Fire a good chance to fight a better seed.