And so it ends. On March 4, 2023, the Fire opened their 26th regular season in MLS against New York City FC and 231 days later, they face the same opponent – this time in Queens, NY – to finish their regular season.
Both teams enter the match with a chance at making the postseason with a result and some help. For NYCFC, a team that won MLS Cup in 2021 and made it to the Conference Finals last year, that would extend their playoff appearance streak to eight seasons. For the Fire, it would be the second time in a decade and the first time since 2017 that the team made the postseason.
A first-ever victory away to NYCFC could put a flourish on the end of a roller-coaster regular season for the Fire that saw the team dismiss sophomore Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson in May, a U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal run, and both the longest scoring drought and the highest-attended home match in team history.
All time: 3W-6D-10L, 15 pts out of 57
Last Match: March 4, 2023: Fire 1-1 NYCFC at Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill
Record: 8W-14D-11L (38 pts)
The Pigeons had quietly put together a six-game unbeaten streak, including three wins (all at home) until they traveled to D.C. United for the host’s final game of the regular season, where D.C. won 2-0 in what would turn out to be Wayne Rooney’s final match at the helm of the club.
The team’s last loss before that was in late August; their last home loss was the game prior against Minnesota United – notably, at Citi Field rather than their normal home of Yankee Stadium. Two of the team’s three home losses this season have been at Citi Field, where the team is 3W–1D–2L this season.
Record: 10W-10D-13L (40 pts)
The Fire followed up their electric 4-1 victory over Inter Miami in the first game of the month with a goose egg against Charlotte FC, losing 2-0. The team had been on a lengthy slump that saw the club go winless after their Leagues Cup exit until putting up a 1-0 victory over the Red Bulls at the end of September, the last time that the team visited the New York metro area.
For the first time since 2020, the Fire have something to play for other than pride on Decision Day. Their Decision Day opponent may be the same as it was that year, but the situations, the coaches, the players, even the Fire’s badge, have all changed since then.
The Fire have never won away at NYCFC, and while they have never played at Citi Field, it presents many of the same challenges as Yankee Stadium, including site lines made for baseball and a smaller pitch size that has effectively acted as the 12th man for the home team.
That isn’t to say that the games have been blowouts for the home side: Both of the Fire’s most recent trips to NYCFC have resulted in 1-0 losses off of a penalty. While it hasn’t just been luck (and the smaller pitch) that have been on NYCFC’s side, it has helped.
Inter Miami playing Charlotte to a draw on Wednesday means that the hosts still have a chance at ninth in the East and the final postseason spot – but it will require a victory over the Fire along with a loss by the crosstown New York Red Bulls (playing away at Nashville) and a loss or draw by Charlotte FC (who host Inter Miami).
The Fire have more paths to the postseason. If the Fire win, combined with a loss or draw by Montréal (playing away at Columbus), and a loss or draw by the Red Bulls, the team could potentially reach eighth place, and have a home playoff game.
A win for the Fire means they are in the postseason as long as Montréal (playing at Columbus) and the Red Bulls don’t both win as well. A Fire victory combined with both of those teams dropping points would see the Fire finish in eighth place and give the team a home playoff game.
If either Montréal or the Red Bulls win, a Fire victory will put them in the ninth and final postseason spot (unless the Fire defeat NYCFC by an absolutely historic margin, which would, in theory, give the Fire the goal differential tiebreaker over the Red Bulls).
The Fire can also make it to ninth place with a draw if the Red Bulls lose and Charlotte loses or draws.
While there are many permutations, the bottom line is simple: If the Fire win, the odds are heavily in their favor of making the postseason. If they draw, they need a lot of help, and if they lose, they know they are out.
Decision Day, with simultaneous kickoff times across the conference, are one of the things that make the league exciting to watch, particularly when your team has something to fight for. It may be a nail-biter, and a lot of us will anxiously be watching the Fire on one screen while MLS 360 plays on another, but that’s exactly what makes this league so much fun.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
New York City FC
Injured: Alfredo Morales, Maxi Moralez
Questionable: Tayvon Gray, Richard Ledezma
When the Fire played NYCFC at the beginning of the season, the story was the exodus of players in the offseason, with supporters firmly hoping that ownership would bring in new talent in the season’s opening weeks and months. Top of the list was a top-tier center forward, which the club had sorely been lacking since they loaned out Taty Castellanos to Girona in the middle of the 2022 campaign.
Reinforcements early in the season, however, were thin on the ground. Although the club did make a few acquisitions, Head Coach Nick Cushing largely had to make do with the squad he was given. In the summer, the team did make a number of moves, including sending off fan-favorite defender Maxime Chanot to League 2, and bringing back club legend Maxi Moralez (subsequently injured) as a free agent.
There were other signings – promising young winger Julián Fernández was brought in from Vélez Sarsfield (Gastón Giménez’s former club), center-back Birk Risa was brought in, possibly to prepare for Chanot’s departure, and the team finally acquired a center forward in 22-year-old Monsef Bakrar.
Although Bakrar has been decent – he has four goals in 12 appearances across all competitions – he simply hasn’t been in the same category as the departed Castellanos, whose 19 goals in the 2021 saw him win the Golden Boot. To be clear – there is a lot of young talent on the roster – including Talles Magno and USMNT player James Sands – it just doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole.
The net result has been a club that feels like it’s preparing for a future (they have the second youngest squad in the league after the crosstown rival Red Bulls) which isn’t quite on the horizon, at least not yet, like a work in progress that someone stopped working on.
As a result, NYCFC have managed just eight wins on the season – all but one at “home” (including Yankee Stadium, Citi Field or Red Bull Arena) along with 14 draws. The underlying statistics suggest that they’re underperforming their performance, but not by that much.
Not unlike their more famous sister club in England, NYCFC play a possession-heavy brand of football (the team is 7th in the league at 52.7% possession), with good numbers of both progressive carries (where the team ranks 9th) and passes (where the team ranks 6th). The team wants to build out of the back and take you apart.
The team has been successful at the “building” in back part – they’re second in the league in touches in their defensive third (after only Toronto, whose touches in the defensive third are more of a result of playing so much in their own end, having 57 goals this season), but starts to fall apart from there: The team is fifth in the league for touches in the middle third, but 22nd in the league in touches in the attacking third.
That might be OK if the team had a striker capable of playing direct and scoring, even with Bakrar’s arrival, they really haven’t had that. As a result, the team
The team’s biggest issue has been finishing: The team’s middle of the pack in shots, they’re 24th in the league at goals per shot and 26th at goals per shot on target.
Injured: Chris Mueller
Suspended: Gastón Giménez
The good news is that the Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas has almost everyone available for Decision Day. The bad news is that one of the players that he doesn’t have is Gastón Giménez, out for his second suspension of the year for yellow card accumulation. On top of that, Mauricio Pineda is just working his way back from injury and may not be fully match fit.
For that reason, expect Federico Navarro (finally back) to start with Ousmane Doumbia in the defensive midfield double pivot. When Doumbia and Giménez play together, Giménez is frequently the one advancing the ball and joining in the attack and leaving Doumbia to assume more of the defensive duties. With Navarro and Doumbia, though, those roles could well be reversed.
That’s basically what happened when Doumbia and Navarro played together in the Leagues Cup against Club América, and Doumbia looked particularly effective in that match. His play – along with Navarro’s – is absolutely critical to the Fire’s chances: Even though Citi Field’s pitch size is smaller (more on that in a second), NYCFC’s possession-heavy style of play is focused on building the ball from the back, through the midfield and into the final third.
Win the battle in the midfield, and they don’t get into the final third, and are, therefore much, much less likely to score. The Fire need both Navarro and Doumbia to win midfield battles with dogged determination throughout the entire match.
Now: About the pitch size. It’s small. At 110 yards by 70 yards, it is 4 yards narrower and 5 yards shorter than the FIFA-recommended 115 x 74, and while that may not sound like a big difference, it means overall there’s about 10% less real estate than what the Fire are used to. Because Citi Field is smaller in both length and width, it affects a lot of aspects of play: it changes the dynamics of set pieces and corners (Xherdan Shaqiri, please, this is not the time to try for an Olimpico) and creates opportunities for direct play.
It also means that, especially after teams have had time to get set on defense, there are more bodies for a given amount of area. That can make a perfectly executed cross more dangerous, but it also makes blind crosses (which are low-percentage passes anyways) even less likely to work out.
What does it all mean? Don’t be afraid to play direct, win the 1-on-1 battles, and get passes into dangerous areas rather than blind crosses , and don’t be afraid to have the Fire’s skilled players – including and especially Shaqiri – take shots or set up those who do.
In some ways, the small pitch size should suit the Fire’s game: They haven’t had great possession numbers but they have players with speed, like Maren Haile-Selassie, players that get weigh a perfect pass into a dangerous area, like Shaqiri and Brian Gutiérrez, and a very proven goalscorer in Kei Kamara.
Take the shorter length of the pitch as an opportunity to play direct, don’t settle for blind crosses but don’t let the opportunity for a good shot to pass you by while waiting for the chance to a perfect shot.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Kei Has a Goal: Actually, Kei Kamara has 144 of them in his MLS career, but that is one short of Landon Donovan’s 145 career goals for second in league history. Early in the season, it felt like Kamara was going to blow past Donovan’s record, but he’s been stuck stubbornly at 144. Kamara is on a one-year deal and his future is up in the air. This is the chance for him to climb up the ladder. A goal would be good for him, a brace would be better, more than that and he would be an MLS legend for years and years to come.
- Big game, big players: Shaqiri has made a name for himself for having big moments in big games. He’s played in knockout competitions in a Fire uniform, but – the number of spectators against Miami notwithstanding, this is the biggest league game he’s had in a Fire uniform. If he puts on a Shaqiri special in Queens, the match should be the Fire’s
- Don’t overthink it: This Fire team is, at this point, the team that it is. It is flawed but it has also put together strong performances and done things no Fire team has ever done, including winning away where no previous Fire team ever has. Do so one more time and the Fire are probably in the postseason. Is it definite? No, but don’t overthink it: Control what you can, which is win, and not what you can’t, which is results hundreds of miles away.
Honestly this will be a pretty boring game, the Fire will tie and it won’t be enough since Charlotte will beat Miami.
Prediction: NYCFC 1-1 Fire
The Fire just have a history of collapsing and having a total lack of clutch when up against a New York team. I don’t see a win on the horizon. I’m not even sure if we’ll see a draw. I think that Shaqiri will actually show up in this game and do what he can, but the rest of the squad just doesn’t have the same clutch “rainy night in Stoke” pedigree. A merciful end to the season, but with some positives likely in solid performances from Shaqiri and Brady. I think that in a situation like this, we’ll just see a complete collapse later in the game that’ll make the final score look a whole lot worse than the game itself was.
Prediction: NYCFC 4-1 Fire
I really want Frank Klopas’s third stint as Fire Head Coach to end in a playoff appearance, but whether it does or doesn’t isn’t really a reflection on his abilities. A number of people on the Fire roster have taken big steps forward this season and they deserve to keep the party rolling, but let’s be real: A draw feels like the kind of result that this team gets – something, an improvement, but a period, not an exclamation mark. You know what, though? It might just be enough and in that case, that’s all that matters.
Prediction: NYCFC 1-1 Fire
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, October 21, 2023, 5:00 PM CT
Location: Citi Field, Queens, NY.
Forecast: 61’F expected at kick off, with 65% humidity, winds WNW at 20mph, 30% cloud cover and a 24% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: wlasam.com (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)