Last Saturday’s loss to the Columbus Crew marked the halfway point for the Fire’s MLS season, leaving the team with 17 points in 17 games, tied with the mark they held at the midway point of last year’s campaign. The team enters a much-needed break in their schedule sitting in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only Inter Miami, a team that is bringing in none other than Lionel Messi – and possibly Sergio Busquets and others – to reinforce its squad going forward.
At first blush, the Fire seem to be in dire straits, sitting just Fire two points above Miami in the standings, four points ahead of the LA Galaxy and Colorado Rapids in the race to the bottom for the ignominious Wooden Spoon, and are a distant 23 points behind Conference and Supporter’s Shield-leading FC Cincinnati.
And yet the Fire aren’t really out of it. Not even close.
Between the expanded postseason format – now featuring nine teams from each conference, a relatively forgiving schedule in the second half, and reversion to the mean (or just better luck), the Fire are far from out of the running for their first playoff appearance since 2017.
Last season, 43 points would have had sole possession of ninth place in the East (42 would have tied with Charlotte and New England, with the most wins being the first tiebreaker), or 44 in the West (with Vancouver and Colorado tied at 43 points apiece). The exact number varies a bit from year to year: since the league expanded to 14 team conferences, it would have taken 47 points and a tiebreaker to make it to ninth in the East in 2021 but just 38 points in 2020 if the league had run a full 34 game season extrapolating from ninth place Montreal’s 1.13 points per game.
The addition of a 15th team in the East changes the math somewhat, but 43 points is a good benchmark for the Fire to shoot for and give the team a good chance of making the postseason. That means the team has to get 26 points from its remaining 17 games.
Last season, the team finished with 22 points during that span, finishing the year with a total of 39 points, so flipping two draws to wins, or two losses to a win and a draw, would have done the trick and put the Fire in ninth place.
The Fire’s second-half schedule should help. To date, the opponents they’ve faced have managed 1.54 points per game, working to about a 52-point season – so the Fire have basically averaged out to playing a decent playoff team. This makes a kind of intuitive sense – they’ve faced league-leading FC Cincinnati and 2022’s Eastern Conference-winning Philadelphia Union twice already, along with playing a match against teams like Nashville, St. Louis, and New England, all of whom look like they’re ready to cruise to higher-seeded playoff spots.
The Fire’s second-half opponents? So far, they’ve averaged just 1.29 points per game or a playoff bubble team (keep in mind – we’re talking averages here). Based on current standings, the best teams that the Fire have to face in the second half are Nashville and New England (once each) and Orlando (twice), but the Fire also plays the LA Galaxy (tied for last place in the league on points).
That’s a much easier second half than the team has enjoyed in recent years: In 2022, the team’s first-half opponents averaged 1.34 points per game, the second half 1.39; the numbers for 2021 were 1.41 and 1.44, respectively. The Fire haven’t had a second half that looks this easy in a long time, although obviously, past performance is no indication of future results, and teams like the Galaxy, Sporting KC, and Miami look like they’ll be tougher opponents than their record indicates by the time the Fire face them.
Expanding the Eastern Conference to 15 teams may change the math somewhat, but it also presents the Fire with an opportunity: No fewer than 12 of the team’s remaining 17 games are potential six-pointers against the conference opponents ranked 6th (Columbus, 27 points) through 15th (Miami, 15 points), giving the Fire the opportunity to grab three points while simultaneously leaving a conference foe fighting for the same playoff spot empty-handed, and the team plays every team in that range at least once.
MLS teams, on average, win about half of their home games and a quarter of their road games. Obviously, sitting in 14th place, the Fire are below average, but if they can manage to hit those numbers, with eight home and nine road games remaining, if the Fire are able to get four home wins and round up and get three wins on the road then split the remaining ten matches between draws and losses, they’ll get the 26 points needed to take them to 43 and, quite possibly, the postseason.
Of course, something being possible doesn’t make it likely, and FiveThirtyEight currently give the team just a 15% chance of making the playoffs. Ultimately, any path to the postseason means that the Fire’s fortunes will have to turn around: So far, they’ve averaged just one win in league play per month, and that pace simply does not make a playoff team. If the Fire want to make the playoffs, they’ll simply need to do better.
The best time to start, obviously, is their next match on June 21 when they travel to Portland to face the Timbers, but the first half of July is a critical period for the team: It’s the team’s last real home stand and three of the team’s eight remaining games at Soldier Field happen in that span. If the team doesn’t get significant points by hook or by crook on July 16 when MLS breaks for the Leagues Cup, the team will be out of “hope” and almost out of “prayer” territory for a postseason appearance. If the team is going to make a run to get into the postseason, wins in front of a friendly crowd in the first half of July are all but essential to making it happen.