With more than two-thirds of the MLS regular season gone, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape.
As clubs around the league jostle for precious points, the next two months will go a long way toward determining which teams are worthy of a postseason berth. For the Chicago Fire (6-12-4, 22 points) - following a sluggish display in their Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup exit - a rematch against the Philadelphia Union (6-13-5, 23 points) at PPL Park on Sunday provides the Men in Red a shot at clambering out of the Eastern Conference cellar.
“Yeah, it’s a good question,” Fire coach Frank Yallop said earlier in the week when asked about the poor run of form away from Toyota Park. “We don’t set up any differently, we try to do the same type of things that we do at home. Maybe we play a little bit deeper, but not by intention.
“Obviously most teams win their home games or they tend to be good at home, and the odd teams that do well in the league usually have a good road record also. ... For us, we’ve just got to keep plugging away and hope that tide will turn and we’ll get that win.”
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After a listless loss in Philadelphia midweek, there will be plenty at stake when the two sides take the field. Both are seeking to mount a late charge in hopes of making themselves heard in the playoff race, though the Union, bolstered by their firm semifinal outing to deny the Fire a chance to seize their fifth Open Cup title, undoubtedly carry all of the momentum.
Results speak for themselves, though, as the Men in Red have failed to win on the road since July 2014, a period spanning 20 matches across all competitions. As it stands, 11 of the Fire's 12 remaining fixtures - barring next week's final cross-conference bout of the season with the Colorado Rapids at Toyota Park - pit Yallop's men against Eastern Conference opposition, eight of which spotlight matches against sides currently sitting above the red line.
On Sunday, the Fire will have to make do without Gilberto, who suffered a thigh contusion in his debut four days prior. After logging 58 minutes in the Cup semifinal, fellow Designated Player David Accam (hamstring) is also questionable.
Midfielder Matt Watson, who was among the list of substitutes on Wednesday, will serve out the second match of his two-game suspension. Ty Harden, previously cup-tied to the San Jose Earthquakes, joined the group and will be available as the primary backup to Eric Gehrig and Jeff Larentowicz with Adaílton nursing an adductor strain and newly acquired center back Daneil Cyrus' unveiling set for next week.
With six points separating the Fire and sixth-place Montreal Impact, two games in hand on Philadelphia, New York City FC and Orlando City SC give Yallop and the Men in Red a platform to get back in the winning column to close out a two-week spell on the road.
“You settle for a point but you’re trying to get three in any game you play,” Yallop said. “The reality is it’s difficult to win every game away from home. If you do get a point it feels like you’ve got something out of the match. ... This is an important week and the next two games (after Sunday) are at home, so we have a good chance of getting our season back on track or it'll falter and peter out.
“The table doesn’t lie, we’re in the position we’re in because of how we’ve done this year. It is what it is and we’ve got to get on with it. I don’t tend to worry too much about the other teams. I just look at the gap that we’ve got to catch up. We do have games in hand and we do have points available to jump above teams."
Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire
Kickoff time: 6 p.m. CT
Where: PPL Park; Chester, Pa.
Broadcast: Fox Sports 1