When Frank Yallop looks back on the Fire’s last 27 regular season games, putting a finger on a solitary factor that has confined his team to last place in the Eastern Conference has proven to be more complex with the passing of time.
Earlier in the season, scoring issues hampered a struggling strike force. Without 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee, a considerable goalscoring burden was placed on the shoulders of newcomers Kennedy Igboananike and David Accam – among others – who found it difficult to find their feet after making the leap from the Swedish first division.
Fast-forward a few months and you’ll find Yallop delighted to be praising both of his prime, offseason acquisitions who, on seven goals apiece, appear to have hit their groove alongside Gilberto, who notched his first goal for the club in the 4-3 defeat to the Montreal Impact. A crippling and conceivably decisive blow to their postseason hopes, the Fire’s 14th loss of 2015 – equaling their total recorded in all of 1999 – left a bitter taste in the mouths of many and brought a more pronounced bag of issues to the fore.
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“We haven’t defended well as a group,” Yallop said Wednesday. “Anytime you concede four goals, you don’t deserve to win the match. … We’re not putting the games together where defensively, we’re solid and we can score three goals. It’s either or: we score goals and we concede them in the same game, or we can’t score and the team punishes us for one chance. We’ve just got to get that balance.”
That balance will have to be discovered quickly when the Fire (7-14-6, 27 points) close out their three-match road spell with a visit to Red Bull Arena to face the New York Red Bulls (12-7-6, 42 points) on Friday night (6 p.m. CT; UniMás).
Four of the Fire’s remaining seven games will be played away from home – including the trip to Harrison, N.J. – leaving no room for error if they are to make up the four-point gap that separates them from Montreal in the table. The Impact (9-11-4, 31 points) occupy the sixth and final playoff spot with three games in hand on the Men in Red and New York City FC (7-13-7, 28 points), and two on Orlando City SC (7-13-8, 29 points) and the Philadelphia Union (8-14-6, 30 points).
Eclipsing Jesse Marsch’s side – which is currently in the midst of an extended break following a 3-0 drubbing of fellow Supporters’ Shield contender D.C. United – will be no easy feat. But the Fire will be comforted by their impressive showing against the Red Bulls at Toyota Park just two weeks prior.
“Just in general, we haven’t really had a good feeling of how to see a game through or win a game 1-0,” Yallop said. “It comes with a bit of time, but we’ve got to figure it out. If we can get a win on Friday, it does open it up again for us. It’s a tough game, but we’ve played against them, and we outplayed them at home. We’ve got to go there and expect to do the same.”
With victory paramount against the Red Bulls in a difficult setting, Yallop will seek out the best composite of players that fit the bill, and will surely benefit from having all of his first-choice starters back from international duty. The return of Accam will supply the Fire with more speed and natural width, while Joevin Jones and Matt Polster – to go along with Ty Harden’s recovery from a hamstring injury and Daneil Cyrus’ long-awaited arrival – will collectively provide more balance within the side to help nullify the Red Bulls’ high-press approach.
“We have to be comfortable defending in our own half, we have to be comfortable defending as a group,” captain Jeff Larentowicz added. “In an MLS game, there’s always going to be times when you give up chances, and you have to be able to weather those storms.”
New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire
Kickoff time: 6 p.m. CT
Where: Red Bull Arena; Harrison, N.J.
Broadcast: UniMás, Univision Deportes