Toronto FC

In losing big showdown, Fire see why Toronto is best team in MLS

In losing big showdown, Fire see why Toronto is best team in MLS

Saturday night was a big occasion for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire hosted league-leading Toronto FC in a meeting of two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings. A crowd of 21,891, a Toyota Park record for a Fire regular season game, was there to see the improved Fire take on TFC’s deep and talented roster that features Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

The tension of a big game was clear in the reactions from the crowd and the large section of traveling Toronto fans. The sellout home crowd was raucous, but couldn’t will the Fire to a win or even a draw.

The Fire simply ran into a better team in the 3-1 loss. Now the Fire are nine points behind Toronto with nine games to go and are in all likelihood out of the Supporters’ Shield race.

“I always say Toronto is doing a great job,” Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “They have up front Giovinco, Altidore. That’s a different category.”

Now the Fire’s focus turns to securing a good playoff seed and chasing down New York City FC for the second spot, and with it the first-round bye. The Fire’s club record nine-game home winning streak is a thing of the past and now the Fire have lost three in a row and five of six.

Given the recent schedule, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Four of those came on the road and losing to Toronto is no shame, even if it came at home. The Fire aren’t suddenly a bad team again, but they have fallen off from the team’s fast start to the summer.

“We played the first half of the season maybe over our limit, more than expected I would say, so we did a great job,” Schweinsteiger said. “Now, we can see what we are missing in our game and we have to find a way to come back and to win a game and we have to play all on a little bit better level.”

Three-game losing streaks have been very rare in Schweinsteiger’s career. The German played for Bayern Munich, the German national team and Manchester United. That’s the bluest of blue bloods in the sport. A three-game losing stretch for any of those teams is a full-blown crisis. Losing five of six? That’s something different for Schweinsteiger.

“Yes, it is,” Schweinsteiger said. “It is very frustrating, very disappointing. I absolutely don’t like that. It’s new.”

So is Schweinsteiger worried about the team’s recent slump?

“If you don’t win games, don’t make points, in a way yes,” he said.

While Schweinsteiger isn’t used to losing this regularly, the Fire are still in a decent position. They are still almost certainly going to make the playoffs and the schedule will get easier. Three of the next four are back at Toyota Park and two of those are against the last place team in each conference, Minnesota and D.C.

Coach Veljko Paunovic is well aware that teams go through streaks, both good and bad, through an MLS season.

“This is like a marathon,” Paunovic said. “Things like this happen and you just have to stay positive and you actually have to know that every team in the league has these kind of moments. They come and they go so we just have to believe, keep working and keep the mood.”

Toronto beat the Fire with Giovinco, a former league MVP, not being much of a factor until he put the game away with a goal in the 90th minute. Altidore was very effective in holdup play and distribution, but only had one shot. With neither of TFC's highly-paid, talented strikers playing decisive roles in the match, the Fire still lost by two goals.

The Fire, which also lost 3-1 in Toronto back in April, got a glimpse of what the bar is at the top of the league and did so in front of a playoff-like atmosphere.

“It was a great rehearsal for us, playing against one of the best teams we could face in the playoffs,” Paunovic said.

The Fire's injury list isn't pretty ahead of big game against Toronto

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USA TODAY

The Fire's injury list isn't pretty ahead of big game against Toronto

There has been plenty of buildup and hype for Saturday’s game between the Chicago Fire and Toronto FC.

That's because these teams had been the top two in the MLS standings for much of the season. However, a recent slump by the Fire (12-7-5, 41 points), four losses in the last five matches, and a slew of injuries to the Fire’s back line may have taken some of the sheen off the match.

It’s still a big one with the Fire already saying the game is sold out. Toronto (13-3-8, 47 points) enters with the best record in the league and some separation in that area as well.

The game will be televised live on CSN with coverage starting at 6:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live. A Spanish language broadcast of the match will also be live on CSN+.

After the Fire lost at Montreal on Wednesday, coach Veljko Paunovic said the game against Toronto was “probably the match of the season.” That’s true in that if the Fire fail to win, it probably realistically ends the team’s chase for the Supporters’ Shield. However, Toronto will remain in the lead and the favorite no matter what happens so perhaps the Fire’s priority should be simply securing the second spot in the Eastern Conference and with it a first-round playoff bye. The Fire are two points behind New York City FC (13-7-4, 43 points) for second place.

Given the hype around the match, it’s not good timing for the Fire that three regular starting defenders will be out for the match. Brandon Vincent will be out for a sixth straight game with a quad injury. Matt Polster will miss a second straight with a left knee injury. Joao Meira, who left five minutes into Wednesday’s game with a calf injury, is also out. In addition, winger David Accam is listed as questionable with a right hip injury.

Those absences could have a drastic impact on the Fire’s lineup against Toronto. In Montreal, Paunovic elected to move Johan Kappelhof, the only healthy regular starting defender, from center back to right back. With Meira now out, Paunovic may keep Kappelhof in the center and bring Drew Conner in at right back. Conner has started three games this season, all three at right back.

It goes without saying that taking on the only team in the league that has scored more goals than the Fire with a severely shorthanded defense is not ideal for the Fire. Sebastian Giovinco (11 goals, 6 assists), Jozy Altidore (9 goals, 5 assists) and Victor Vazquez (5 goals, 10 assists) all have had strong seasons for TFC.

In midfield, it will be interesting to see how it plays out with Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger going up against Toronto’s Michael Bradley.

The Fire enter with a club-record nine straight home wins, but none of those were as tough on paper as this one appears to be.

Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN (Spanish language broadcast on CSN+)

When: Coverage begins Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (12-7-5, 41 points), Toronto (13-3-8, 47 points)

Why the next two weeks are crucial in MLS' Eastern Conference race

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USA TODAY

Why the next two weeks are crucial in MLS' Eastern Conference race

As Major League Soccer teams return from the Gold Cup break this week, the Chicago Fire are tied for the best record in the league.

The Fire’s 11-3-5 record, good for 38 points, has virtually assured the team of a playoff spot with nearly half the season still to play. Sports Club Stats has MLS playoff odds, which give the Fire and Toronto FC both a 99.9 percent chance of making the postseason.

So if the Fire’s baseline goal of making the playoffs is a near certainty at this point, what’s next? The Fire will want to strive for a first-round bye by getting one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference. The Fire and Toronto are currently five points ahead of third-place New York City FC. Those two teams play tonight in The Bronx before the Fire head to Yankee Stadium to take on NYCFC on Saturday.

“We have to see how they play, obviously against Toronto, another direct opponent in our quest for the top of our conference,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said on Tuesday. “We’ll see how they do, how they’re going to play. We’ll see also what lineup they will play and that’s a good opportunity for us. We also know that that result is going to impact for sure their approach against us on Saturday.”

NYCFC could either fall out of the race or jump right into the thick of it in the next two weeks. Even after hosting both Toronto and the Fire in a four-day span, the David Villa-led team heads to Canada for another meeting with Toronto FC on July 30.

A look at the remaining schedule for the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings shows the Fire may have the toughest road ahead. The table below shows how many games each team has at home and away as well as total games vs. teams currently in playoff spots and away games against those current playoff teams.

  Home games Away games Playoff teams At playoff teams
Fire 7 8 7 5
Toronto 8 7 6 3
NYCFC 8 7 8 2

The Fire have one fewer home game than Toronto and New York, but the real difference is in those away playoff games. The Fire have five such contests remaining (at NYCFC, at West-leading Sporting Kansas City, at Columbus, at San Jose and the season finale at Houston) and are 0-2-3 in those games so far this year.

Toronto has trips to Yankee Stadium and Toyota Park still on its schedule, but only one other road game against a playoff team. That's in Atlanta, the team that sits in fourth in the conference. TFC's disadvantage is that the Reds will be without Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley presumably for both of the key meetings with NYCFC while those two are competing in the Gold Cup knockout stage.

New York has two meetings, both one home and away, against the Fire and Toronto. In addition, NYCFC hosts three of the Western Conference's best teams in Sporting KC, Portland and Houston in September. With ground to make up in the standings, David Villa and Co. will need to do well in those games against the Fire and Toronto to fight for a first-round playoff bye and perhaps a long-shot run at the Supporters' Shield.

Regardless of what lies further ahead, the next two weeks should go a long way to shaping the race at the top of the Eastern Conference when the final stretch of the season approaches.