Fresh off a big win against a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference and the Fire now face another. It’s that time of year.
After picking up a crucial win in Montreal last weekend, the mood around the Fire at training this week was decidedly different. The weight of the losing streak had left the team and was replaced by newfound optimism about the stretch run of the regular season.
“It’s always good to get back on the winning side of things,” defender Matt Polster said on Wednesday. “I think now we have to treat every game like it’s a playoff game from here on out because it’s so tight.”
There are seven matches left for the Fire and few will be as big as Saturday’s against the New York Red Bulls. Three teams currently holding playoff spots remain on the Fire’s schedule and two of those are in the Eastern Conference. As far as jockeying for position, it’s this game against the Red Bulls and a Sept. 30 home match against New York City FC that hold the most weight.
The Red Bulls (12-10-4, 40 points) are fifth in the standings, but have at least one game in hand on each of the four teams above, including the Fire (13-9-5, 44 points). The Fire sit third. NYCFC is still a possible, although increasingly unreachable, target in second place, but the Red Bulls are a more imminent threat.
“It will be a tough match,” defender Brandon Vincent said. “The New York Red Bulls, whether it’s playing for playoffs or not, they are a good team. They bring out the high pressure and they’re a tough team to beat so we expect a battle and I think we got enough to compete.”
With both Polster and Vincent returning in Montreal, the Fire do have some reinforcements. However, Bastian Schweinsteiger is listed as out on the injury report after suffering a calf injury in that win in Quebec. Joao Meira is expected to miss his fourth straight game although he did return to the training field this week in a limited capacity.
Dax McCarty is expected to start after rejoining the team in training on Thursday. McCarty was with the U.S. national team for a pair of World Cup qualifiers, but did not see the field. For McCarty, this will mark his second match against his former team since being traded in the offseason. He assisted on the Fire’s only goal in a 2-1 loss in Red Bull Arena on April 29.
New York has its own injury problems with regular starters Aurelien Collin (defender), Mike Grella (midfielder) and Daniel Royer (midfielder) all out.
As always, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic emphasized the importance of the upcoming stretch of games. After hosting the Red Bulls, the Fire host D.C. United next week before two straight on the road at Philadelphia and San Jose.
“Wins like the one in Montreal help us and gives the team the right boost in order to prepare the next two home games that we have,” Paunovic said. “I think Red Bulls is one of the best teams in the league, very experienced in these kind of games and this part of the season.”