And then there was one. The Fire now only have one competition on their schedule for the rest of the year, the MLS regular season. The team currently sits in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, in a playoff spot with eleven games – almost exactly one-third – of their season remaining.
There’s a certain poetry to the team’s position. They currently have eight wins, balanced perfectly with eight losses and seven draws after 23 matches. They sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings – seven teams above them, seven teams below them, although they fare a bit better in the overall league position – 13th out of 29 teams. Their total goal differential? Zero. In the Leagues Cup, the team went 1-1-1, with a goal differential of +0 excluding tiebreaking penalty kicks.
Level. Even. Balanced.
And yet – getting their heads above water took a herculean effort, with the team winning five of six and losing just once since the June international break, making them the hottest team in the league over that stretch. They’ve given themselves breathing room, but only just and can’t afford to return to the form they showed in the early part of the spring.
With that in mind, let’s break down the Fire’s eleven remaining games as the Fire look to make their first appearance in the postseason since 2017.
Averaging around a point a game from here on out will land the team with 43 points, likely enough to give the team a spot in the postseason, albeit in the form of a one-game wildcard spot rather than a Best of Three first-round series. However, the total shifts every year and, based on their Leagues Cup performance, Inter Miami – currently in 15th place in the East with 18 points – is expected to make a hard-charging run for the postseason, possibly pushing the required point total up.
Making it to seventh place and qualifying for Round One directly likely requires the team to get sixteen points – a taller ask out of eleven matches. Either seventh or eighth place guarantees the team at least one playoff game in front of home fans.
Home vs. Away
At a high level, the team also has balance with five home games and six on the road – an important consideration in a league where teams are roughly twice as likely to win at home as they are away (on average, teams around the league as a whole win about half their home games, and only about one in four away).
Taking a closer look, however, the schedule itself is bumpier: Two of the team’s remaining five home games in the last 10 days of August, but it isn’t really a homestand – the team has to fly cross-country to face the Galaxy in that stretch, before returning to play host Vancouver on August 30.
The team then kicks off the month of September with three games on the road, starting D.C. United on the 2nd. The team’s next home game isn’t until the 23rd of September, and that’s the only time the team will play in front of a home crowd that month.
The team closes the month of September out on the road against the NY Red Bulls before playing its final two home games of the season, starting with a midweek matchup against Inter Miami. Following their game against Charlotte on October 7th, the Fire have a two-week international break before closing things out against New York City FC on October 21.
Strength of Opposition
At first blush, the team should have an easy go of things in the last stretch of their season. Of the Fire’s eleven opponents, only three of them are above the Fire in the standings: Orlando, New England, and Columbus. However – as with all of this, the closer you look, the more complicated things get.
Two of the Fire’s home games are against teams currently above them in the standings: Orlando on August 20 and New England on September 23. Vancouver is just one point behind the Fire and has a game in hand, as well as a better goal differential. Given the home-team advantage of the league, if the Fire want to comfortably make the playoffs, they’ll want to get a minimum of one win out of those three.
The LA Galaxy, who the Fire face on August 26, have finally started climbing from the basement of the league table after going winless in their first seven games to start the season, and winning just one of their first ten matches. The team’s only losses since late May came when the team was playing down a man.
And, of course, the Miami team that the Fire will host in early October has made some significant roster changes since their last MLS game – although it’s a midweek away game for Miami sandwiched between two home matches for the team, meaning that Messi and Busquets may have limited, if any, minutes to be rested for the home crowd (of course, if Miami makes a hard-charging run for the playoffs, the game against the Fire basically becomes must-win for the team, and all bets on roster rotation are off). Needless today – whether that game has likely playoff implications for either or both teams should be a lot clearer then than it is now. With 12 games remaining, Miami likely needs at least eight wins and no more than 2 losses to have a shot at the postseason. Dropping points – through draws or losses – make the math go from unlikely to impossible very fast for Messi’s new team.
A Plan to Make the Playoffs
Although a point-a-game pace is likely enough to see the team make it to the postseason, they can’t afford to take anything for granted. The team has had summer surges in the past, often getting in or near a playoff position, only to have postseason chances ruined by a run of poor form down the stretch.
With three games in August, two of them at home, the Fire need to aim for an absolute minimum of three points. Starting off with a result at home against Orlando, the team that sent the Fire to their most recent defeat in league play, would be a statement result and go a long way towards closing the gap with teams above the Fire in the Eastern Conference standings, even if it wouldn’t move the Fire out of eighth place.
Barring that, the team would either have to get a rare West Coast road win against the Galaxy or find themselves in an almost-must-win game against a very good Vancouver team that they’ve only beaten three times in their history (though they do have a winning record against the Whitecaps at home).
With three road games to kick off September, the team will want to get at least one victory – and there’s no better place to start than their first game of the month in Washington, D.C. against a D.C. United team that has continued to face on- and off-pitch turbulence and is battling for the same playoff spots as the Fire. A result there, combined with at least three points in the month of August is the bare minimum that the team will need unless they want to find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in by the time they host a very good New England Revolution team.
The Revs currently sit second in the East and league with 43 points (behind FC Cincinnati), have scored the second most goals in the league (after St. Louis), and are tied with Cincinnati for the second-best goal differential in the league at +14 (both after St. Louis).
The team will likely want to try to get at least eight points before that match if they don’t want it to feel like an absolute must-win game. Points against the Revs would be welcome, but the team doesn’t want to be in a situation needing three points against one of the top teams in the league.
Assuming they manage that, they can head to New Jersey to take on the Red Bulls likely needing just four points out of their final four games to make the playoffs. A win there takes significant pressure off the team going into their final two home games. If the Fire don’t manage to get points against New York or Miami, then the final home game of the season against Charlotte may very well be a must-win situation.
The Fire’s strong performance in June and July has put them in the driver’s seat for their destiny, but the margins remain thin. Every win from here on out significantly bolsters the team’s chances at making the playoffs. Individual losses aren’t fatal, and draws don’t move the needle much.
If the team resumes with anything like the form that it found in the weeks before the campaign paused for Leagues Cup, they’ll be fine. If they return to the form we saw in the early spring, they will once again be spectators come playoff time.