The last time that the Chicago Fire went into the final game of the MLS regular season with a chance of making the playoffs was in 2020, when they hosted New York City FC at an empty Soldier Field. A hat trick of Djordje Mihailovic assists wasn’t enough to evade defeat, however, and the Fire lost 4-3, ending hopes of squeaking into a drastically expanded playoff field.
The script for this Saturday’s Decision Day showdown is similar, though the Fire will travel on the road to the Big Apple this time. In addition, as opposed to NYCFC’s usual home of Yankee Stadium, the match will be played at a different ballpark: Citi Field. A defeat would eliminate the Fire from postseason contention, while a win or a draw would only be enough if other results help them out.
“I think teams that don’t make the playoffs, you can look at it that it has not been a successful season, there’s no way of sugarcoating it,” says Head Coach Frank Klopas, who will leave his short-term position at the end of the season. “There’s eight, nine teams that get in, and there’s an opportunity for postseason, and the rest of the teams are not there.”
This season’s expansion of the playoff field from seven to nine teams from each conference completely alters the weight of one of those spots. From a 15-team conference, the 13th-placed team is still alive on the final day, and it has been subject to criticism. While sneaking into a playoff bracket containing nearly two-thirds of the teams in the league isn’t quite an accomplishment of significant note, for a Fire organization so starved of late-fall soccer in the last decade-plus, it would be a small breath of fresh, frisky air.
Though the current postseason drought is on the verge of potentially being extended to six seasons, Klopas feels the Fire have progressed greatly in recent seasons. When owner Joe Mansueto took over the club in late 2019, the Fire was falling behind others around MLS in many off-field capacities, and the coach gives him a lot of credit, even though the team has fallen short of expectations on the field.
“We were lagging in so many areas, front office and the business side and the soccer side, which is the most important thing for us,” Klopas added. “I think in [Mansueto’s] time that he’s been here, I think he’s put his hand in his pocket and really has put the resources that we have needed, and we lacked before to bring the club up to par and try to become one of the elite clubs, not only in MLS but in the world. The last part is just the on-field stuff.”
Even if the Fire can deliver on the narrow baseball field at New York City, something they’ve never done in history, there’s still a chance they would miss the postseason. It would be an ironic twist to end a season in which half a dozen middling teams have been competing to find out who wants the last two playoff spots the least.
“We just know that if we win, if we get three points, we’ve done our job, and then we have to see the other games,” winger Maren Haile-Selassie says of what will be his first-ever game in a baseball stadium. “We know of the importance, but it’s important to stay cool, stay relaxed, and yeah, it’s a football game, 90 minutes. You know [to] do what’s expected from you.”