Chicago Fire: 2011 Regular Season
Houston's misstep was Chicago's offensive answer, particularly in the final two thirds of the season, as Oduro received ESPNChicago's vote for the team's most valuable player in 2011.
Oduro netted 12 goals, becoming the first Fire player since Damani Ralph in 2004 to reach double-digit tallies in a season. That number more than doubled Oduro's previous-best five goals in 2008 with FC Dallas and last year with the Dynamo. And that goal production tied him for fifth among the league leaders.
But Oduro was not exactly a runaway MVP choice for this team. Throughout a decent portion of this season his finishing ability was questioned, starting the minute he was brought in to play for the Fire. MVP consideration also went to Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, despite his limited playing time. Grazzini was hands down the best production-per-minute player on the team.
Grazzini scored five goals and added four assists in only 780 minutes. Triple that production for a full season of play and that is not just team MVP-worthy -- that is league MVP consideration. But the bottom line is Grazzini only saw the pitch for 11 games, and the Fire desperately needed more minutes out of him to reach the postseason. Unfortunately for Chicago, Grazzini's hamstring issues limited his time, both in regular-season play and in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The speedy Oduro missed his share of high-percentage scoring opportunities, but he was responsible for more than a quarter of the Fire's goals this season. His offense picked up the slack for a team that also was expecting more from midfielder Marco Pappa, who struggled mightily (other than his hat trick against Real Salt Lake) following his CONCACAF Gold Cup stint.
ESPNChicago's choice for team defender of the year was center back Cory Gibbs. He was the most consistent player from start to finish. And a bulk of Gibbs' value has to be toward mentoring a young defensive group that included Jalil Anibaba (23), Yamith Cuesta (22) and Josip Mikulic (25).
Following C.J. Brown's retirement and Wilman Conde's departure after the 2010 season, there were plenty of defensive question marks heading into this year. Gibbs filled a needed role to lead the back line, and that appears to be the area on the pitch with the least concern heading into this offseason.
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson also was considered for the defensive honor. Johnson struggled at the start of the season and briefly lost his starting job to Jon Conway. But the second-year goalkeeper improved immensely down the stretch, posting seven shutouts on the campaign.
Fire forward Diego Chaves scored his second game-winning goal in as many games and Fire defender Jalil Anibaba had two goals as Chicago topped the Columbus Crew, 3-2, on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 20,237 at Toyota Park.
The Fire completed the season with 9-9-16 mark (43 points), but Chicago missed the postseason for a second straight year and the third time in the team's 14-season history.
"Obviously we're disappointed not to be in the playoffs because that was our goal from the beginning," Klopas said. "But I feel very good at this point of the season where we are as a team. There's a lot to build from this."
As the Fire move into next season, the first major question is whether they will remove Klopas' interim tag and have him continue as the team's head coach.
"In the next couple weeks we're going to sit down as an organization and make the best decision going forward for the Fire," Klopas said. "But I've enjoyed every single second of my professional job, especially what I did now as the interim coach. I really enjoyed it with this group, because I've always believed in this group."
On Saturday, Chaves provided another game-winner following his dramatic stoppage-time goal against D.C. United the previous week. In the 81st minute against the Crew, Chaves provided a tally one minute after Columbus' Dilly Duka netted an equalizer on a botched defensive clearance.
Following the Crew goal, the Fire's Dominic Oduro was on the attack and ripped a shot from the right side, forcing Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer to dive to the right for the save. Chaves ran on in and tallied the unassisted score for the 3-2 win.
Anibaba had a solid day on the offensive side with the first two goals of his young MLS career. Anibaba gave the Fire a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute off of a Pavel Pardo assist, cutting in front of Crew defender Julius James and heading the ball past Hesmer.
Anibaba then netted his second goal in the 30th minute, coming up with a difficult header that was redirected toward the far right corner of the goal for a 2-0 lead. Fellow defender Cory Gibbs assisted from the left side.
"It was a good service out wide from Cory," Anibaba said. "I pointed to the spot and he literally put it right there. It was just a matter of me getting on the end of a good service."
Columbus fell to 13-13-8 (47 points), but the Crew prepares for the postseason.
The Fire put together a strong second-half run. Still, there were quite a few of those league-high 16 draws that could have turned into additional points.
"We made as hard of a push as we could have," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "Obviously it's a little bittersweet because we want to continue to play. You want to put yourself with a chance to make the playoffs and compete, and try to win a trophy. That was one of our goals that we didn't succeed with. But I think it is a silver lining and it feels as good as it can."
Analysis: The Fire's playoff fate already was sealed heading into Saturday, but Chicago made a strong enough statement in improving to .500. The Fire also improved to 6-3-8 at Toyota Park this season, a home mark that is an improvement from recent years.
Going forward, there is the sentiment that Chicago has the bulk of its plan in place, which was a complete reversal from the previous offseason. The next few weeks should be interesting to see what decisions the Fire make about keeping Klopas, retaining the likes of midfielders Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini (who was out Saturday with his hamstring injury) and going elsewhere to find some other pieces -- perhaps another striker and more midfield depth.
The Fire progressed well during the second half of the season, but they need to establish the postseason standard that was a given year in and year out. Missing this year's playoffs certainly is a bitter pill to swallow, especially considering this year's playoffs expanded to 10 teams.
How it happened: Fire rookie defender Jalil Anibaba scored his first MLS goal in the 11th minute to give Chicago a 1-0 lead. Anibaba headed the ball into the net off of Pavel Pardo's delivery into the box. In the 30th minute, Anibaba came up again on the offensive end with a difficult header toward the far right corner of the goal for a 2-0 lead. Fellow defender Cory Gibbs assisted from the left side. Columbus' Renteria volleyed in a goal in the 72nd minute to cut Chicago's lead to 2-1. Columbus' Dilly Duka tied the score at 2-2 in the 80th minute. But the Fire's Diego Chaves came right back in the 81st with a rebound goal to take a 3-2 lead. Chaves scored his second game-winner in as many games
What it means: With the Fire knowingly out of the playoff picture heading into the match, Chicago ended its 2011 season with a .500 record at 9-9-16 (43 points). The Crew fall to 13-13-8 (47 points), but prepare for the playoffs. Chicago missed the postseason for the second straight year and the third time in 14 seasons.
Outside the box: With Anibaba's two goals and Gibbs' assist, Fire defenders provided six goals and seven assists this season.
Up next: The Fire missed the postseason for a second straight year so the focus now is on the offseason and 2012. Chicago will submit its 11-player protected list to MLS on Nov. 21, as Montreal Impact head coach and his expansion club will select 10 players during the Nov. 23 MLS Expansion Draft.
Chicago (8-9-16, 40 points) has come a long way during the second half of the season to even be a part of the postseason dialogue over the past several weeks. So the Fire would like to maintain that trend with one final positive result heading into 2012.
"The most important thing, and our focus, has to be on making sure we finish the season strong," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "We're playing at home against a very good team -- a big rival of ours. It's just important to continue to be building and getting better every game."
"I feel like we're playing for something," Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said. "We're playing for three points, playing for a win, playing for our fans who have been with us all year through torrid times."
Toyota Park will have a sellout crowd on hand, and the Fire for the most part had found some life on the home front over the past couple of months. The Fire had a four-game winning streak at home to get into the postseason picture, but they hit a roadblock during their 2-1 home loss to FC Dallas on Oct. 12.
"Against Dallas, we didn't come out sharp mentally and physically, and they punished us," Nyarko said. "If we go out there like we did against Dallas, it'll be a long night. But we know how we played against D.C. and we know we can get the wins. The guys are mentally ready to close the season on a bright note."
The Fire are fresh off a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over D.C. United last Saturday at RFK Stadium. Diego Chaves scored the winner and Sebastian Grazzini had the equalizer -- both goals coming in stoppage time. But Grazzini is a question mark heading into this weekend with a lingering hamstring injury.
Some reinforcements that were not in D.C. will be back this weekend. Midfielder Pavel Pardo (red card) and defenders Cory Gibbs (yellow card accumulation) and Dan Gargan (yellow card accumulation) return from their suspensions. Defender Josip Mikulic, who replaced Gibbs in the D.C. match, will be suspended for the season finale because of yellow card accumulation.
Columbus (13-12-8, 47 points) is coming off a 3-0 victory at the New England Revolution last Saturday. Team scoring leader Andres Mendoza posted a pair of goals to increase his season total to 13.
The Fire defeated the Crew, 1-0, in Columbus on June 12. Cristian Nazarit tallied a stoppage-time goal as Klopas earned his first win at the helm after taking over for former head coach Carlos de los Cobos. That victory also ended an 11-game winless streak (0-4-7).
Oduro, Gibbs earn team awards: Though the season has one final game remaining in the books, the Fire felt that it was clear-cut in naming forward Dominic Oduro the team MVP and Cory Gibbs the Defender of the Year on Friday. Oduro leads the Fire with 12 goals in 33 games. Both players will receive their awards before Saturday's match. The team said that Gibbs narrowly beat out goalkeeper Sean Johnson for the defensive honor. Both awards were voted on by local media and the team's technical staff. Defender Steven Kinney, who did not play on the pitch this season because of an Achilles injury in 2010 and had various setbacks during his recovery process, was named Fire Humanitarian of the Year.
Draft takes place on Jan. 12: Major League Soccer announced Friday that the 2012 MLS SuperDraft will be held on Jan. 12 at the Kansas City Convention Center in Kansas City, Mo. ESPN2 will broadcast the first round, starting at 11 a.m.
Though the official ruling was an own goal by Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon in the eighth minute, it was the Red Bulls' Dane Richards who put his header on frame to lead to the game's only goal. The 5-foot-7 Richards was unmarked by the Union defense in the box, and his header bounced off the post, hit Mondragon in the back when he was sprawled out on the pitch, and the ball crossed the goal line for an early 1-0 Red Bulls lead.
New York (10-8-16, 46 points) clinches the final postseason spot, eliminating both the Fire (8-9-16, 40 points) and the expansion Portland Timbers (11-14-8, 41 points). Chicago will wrap up its 2011 season on Saturday when it hosts the Columbus Crew at Toyota Park.
For the second straight season and for the third time in the Fire's 14-season history, Chicago is out of the playoffs.
The Fire looked like their 2011 season was practically over when they fell to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps, 4-2, on Aug. 7. Chicago held a dismal 2-7-13 record and showed few signs that it could turn the season around. In fact, at the time Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas' record through 11 games (1-3-7, 10 points) was only a shade better than Carlos de los Cobos' mark in the first 11 (1-4-6, nine points) before he was fired.
But Chicago posted an impressive 5-1-2 record in the games to follow, including a huge 3-0 win at Real Salt Lake on Sept. 28.
That momentum, however, was lost when the Fire played to a 1-1 draw at the Houston Dynamo on Oct. 1, followed by a 2-1 home loss to FC Dallas that pretty much penciled in the Fire's playoff-less fate.
The Fire kept things interesting, though, when Sebastian Grazzini netted an equalizer and Diego Chaves the game-winner in stoppage time to come from behind to beat D.C. United, 2-1, on Saturday at RFK Stadium to keep Chicago mathematically in the hunt heading into this week. The Portland Timbers' 1-1 draw against D.C. on Wednesday also helped keep the Fire in the picture.
The first item on the Chicago Fire's wish list came true when the Portland Timbers played D.C. United to a 1-1 draw on Wednesday at RFK Stadium.
A Portland victory would have eliminated the Fire from postseason contention, and the Timbers (11-14-8, 41 points) had a 1-0 lead against United thanks to Kenny Cooper's 24th-minute goal. But league scoring leader Dwayne De Rosario of D.C. evened things up in the 73rd minute. Despite a frantic finish, neither side scored another goal down the stretch.
The Fire (8-9-16, 40 points) now have to hope for a loss by the New York Red Bulls (9-8-16, 43 points) when they host the Philadelphia Union on Thursday at Red Bull Arena (7 p.m., ESPN2). If New York posts a win or a draw, Chicago officially will be eliminated from the playoff picture.
The Fire also need New York to lose by a considerable margin. The Red Bulls have the goal differential tiebreaker advantage over the Fire, sitting at plus-five. Chicago is even.
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Chicago Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini's hamstring problems continue to persist. Heading into the Fire's home finale against the Columbus Crew on Saturday at Toyota Park, Grazzini's status could change day by day.
Grazzini netted a stoppage-time equalizer during the Fire's dramatic 2-1 come-from-behind win over D.C. United on Saturday. But on Wednesday he cut his training short because of the left hamstring injury that has plagued him off and on for nearly a month.
"He was out here earlier running, jogging, but when he tries to open up a little bit, he still feels it," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said following Wednesday's training. "We'll see how he feels. He's day-to-day."
The Fire are in wait-and-see mode regarding the importance of Saturday's match, which will include a sold-out fan base at Toyota Park. Three other teams are involved in the hunt for the last remaining wild card spot, though the odds of Chicago sneaking in are incredibly small. The New York Red Bulls currently hold the final postseason position with 43 points, and the Fire need them to lose Thursday's match to the Philadelphia Union, among many other factors.
"Obviously we're going to watch and see what happens," Klopas said. "But what I talked about with the group is just the things that we can control. It's great if some things go our way. The most important thing is our focus on Saturday, making sure we finish the season strong."
The Fire are coming off a victory over D.C. that seemed improbable after Dwayne De Rosario's penalty kick in the 90th minute. Grazzini's equalizer and Diego Chaves' winner created a moment that still is buzzing among the Fire locker room.
"I've never been in games like that, ever," Klopas said. "It's great when you're at the end of something like that because there's so much for team spirit, for morale, for the guys who put so much into it. The game's never over until the final whistle. It's great when you're on the winning side of that."
"We were absolutely in shock," Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said. "I didn't know what the hell was going on those last couple of minutes, but it shows the character of this team. We didn't keep our heads down. We just kept fighting till the end. It was one of the most incredible games and comebacks I've been a part of, and it was amazing to be on that side and not on the other side."
Kinney undergoes surgery: Fire right back Steven Kinney underwent sports hernia surgery on Wednesday. Though Kinney had performed some light training in recent months, the team was not expecting him to return for the end of the season. Kinney has not played in an MLS game in the past year, rupturing his right Achilles tendon on Oct. 23, 2010, against Chivas USA. He had surgery in the offseason, but then a groin strain set Kinney back during his return.
Expansion draft on Nov. 23: Major League Soccer announced Wednesday that it is holding the 2012 MLS Expansion Draft on Nov. 23 of this year. The league's 19th team, the Montreal Impact, will select 10 players during the 10-round draft. Former Fire midfielder Jesse Marsch is the Impact's head coach.
Major League Soccer must be loving the way things have turned out heading into the final week of the regular season. Combine the Fire's late heroics and the New York Red Bulls' loss to Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, and the league now has a scenario where four teams still have a mathematical hope for the final wild card spot.
"It's never over until it's over," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said after Saturday's 2-1 win over D.C. "We pushed it and brought a couple subs in that had an impact on the game. I think in the end, some special players made special plays, and when we had the chances we finished them."
Sebastian Grazzini's stoppage-time equalizer and Diego Chaves' stoppage-time game-winner created a dramatic moment for the Fire, who looked like their season was all but over.
The spell of fortune needs to linger this week for Chicago, but at least there still is that small realm of playoff possibility.
Here are the important scenarios that have to happen in order for the Fire to finalize this unfathomable turnaround to sneak into the final postseason spot:
Minimal points for Portland, D.C.: Heading into the week, the Timbers sit with 40 points with two matches remaining, and D.C. United has 38 points with two games left. Chicago lost twice to Portland during the regular season, so the Fire do not want to see Portland reach the 43-point mark or they will be eliminated from the postseason. On Wednesday, Portland and D.C. square off against one another. An appropriate result from the Fire's standpoint would be a draw. Then, Portland would need to either play to a draw or lose to Real Salt Lake on Saturday, while Saturday's D.C.-Sporting Kansas City result would have no bearing. Another scenario would be D.C. posting a win over the Timbers, but then playing to a draw or losing to Sporting Kansas City. The Timbers still would need to post a draw or loss to Real Salt Lake over the weekend in this instance.
Red Bulls loss to Philadelphia: The Fire need New York to post one more critical defeat when it hosts the Union on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN2). The Red Bulls have 43 points and the Fire have 40. Not only do the Red Bulls need to fall to the Union, but they will need to lose by a considerable margin. Because both sides played to draws during the regular season, the next determining tiebreaker is goal differential. The Fire trail the Red Bulls in goal differential by five (New York is at plus-five and Chicago is even). New York will have its home base against Philly, and the Red Bulls posted a 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy the last time they had a match at Red Bull Arena on Oct. 4. Team scoring leader Thierry Henry will be serving his red card suspension in the home finale, so that will be a bit of an obstacle to overcome.
Fire win against Columbus: Chicago already will know heading into this game as to whether the team still has a chance or not. The Fire will need to topple the Crew by a considerable margin to make up the remaining goal differential to the Red Bulls. The Fire have not scored more than three goals in a game this season, and they most likely would need to have a season-best offensive performance against the Crew. Columbus' defense typically has been one of the more consistent ones in the Eastern Conference, though the Crew did have a two-game stretch where the team allowed a combined 10 goals to Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC in late August and early September.
The elements were not in the Chicago Fire's favor.
They had three suspended starters. They were playing on the road. They were playing down a goal heading into stoppage time. And anything less than a win would have officially spelled the end to Chicago's small, but lingering, playoff hopes.
Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini tallied an equalizer and second-half sub Diego Chaves netted the winner three minutes into stoppage time as Chicago posted a miraculous 2-1 come-from-behind victory over D.C. United on Saturday at RFK Stadium.
"It was an incredible five minutes, first for D.C. and then finally for us," Chaves said. "It was really, really intense."
Chaves' goal was his first since April 23, when the Fire played to a 1-1 draw against the Houston Dynamo. Chaves tallied four goals in the Fire's first six games to lead the team at the time, but he got out of his scoring funk at the right time as defender Gonzalo Segares assisted the game-winner.
"He was at the right place at the right time, and I'm glad he was there," Segares said of Chaves. "He's been working hard for a long time and I'm just happy that he got that goal. I'm sure that's going to motivate him."
With the victory, the Fire (8-9-16, 40 points) move to within three points of the New York Red Bulls in their fight for the final wild card spot. New York (9-8-16, 43 points) kept Chicago in the postseason picture when it fell to host Sporting Kansas City, 2-0, earlier on Saturday.
The playoffs still are a hefty task for the Fire as they need more elements to fall into place next week.
The Fire need the Red Bulls to also lose their final game of the season on Thursday when New York faces the Philadelphia Union (7 p.m., ESPN2). Chicago needs to win next Saturday's home finale against the Columbus Crew at Toyota Park. The Fire need the Portland Timbers and D.C. to earn minimal points during their final two games -- preferably a draw when Portland and D.C. face each other next Wednesday. And to top it all off, the Fire need to make up a five-goal differential with the Red Bulls (Chicago is even and New York is plus-five).
During Saturday's game-winning sequence, Segares timed his run perfectly to where he was even with D.C.'s back line when he received Orr Barouch's pass. Segares crossed the ball in from the left side and Chaves converged for the winner.
"I was worried about [being offside]," Segares said. "Orr's pass, I started screaming at him and it took a little bit longer. I took a glimpse and saw the linesman didn't have his flag raised, so I knew I was going to be able to get to the ball. I knew the ball was going to slow down and that I could catch up with it. After that, my only thought was to get the cross in."
D.C. looked like it minimally had a draw wrapped up. And then in the 89th minute, things turned toward United's favor when Santina Quaranta was fouled in the box by Segares. League scoring leader Dwayne De Rosario took the subsequent penalty kick in the 90th minute and gave D.C. a 1-0 lead. De Rosario shot toward the left side of the goal while Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson guess the opposite direction.
However, Grazzini pulled the Fire level one minute into stoppage time. Segares also assisted Grazzini's tally as the shot was struck toward the upper left corner of the goal.
The Fire entered the match with plenty of setbacks. Midfielder Pavel Pardo was serving a red card suspension after he was ejected during Chicago's 2-1 loss to FC Dallas on Wednesday. Right back Dan Gargan and center back Cory Gibbs also missed the D.C. match because of yellow card accumulation.
Michael Videira filled in for Gargan on Saturday, but he had to leave the match in the 19th minute because of a groin injury. Fire center back Josip Mikulic replaced the suspended Gibbs, but he picked up a yellow card and will be suspended for next Saturday's match against Columbus (yellow card accumulation).
Analysis: One thing is for certain -- Chicago is not going to go away as long as this miniscule postseason hope hangs around.
The final minutes of Saturday's match were almost unthinkable, but the Fire pulled off the comeback to make the upcoming week pertinent in their schedule.
People had every right to question when Chicago would make its desperate last-minute push against D.C. While the Fire did create some pretty good scoring opportunities, particularly in the first half, there just was not that swarm-the-goal burst in the final 10 to 15 minutes of regulation.
Segares said that the Fire were exhausted with about 15 minutes left. Chicago found just enough of a burst in stoppage time to force the boo birds to start chirping at RFK.
A postseason still is a long way off for Chicago considering the number of factors involved, but this team showed a tremendous amount of fight at D.C.
What it means: The Fire managed to stay in the playoff picture with Saturday's win. The New York Red Bulls kept Chicago in the race earlier in the day when they fell to host Sporting Kansas City, 2-0. Chicago improves to 8-9-16 (40 points) and D.C. United moves to 9-12-11 (38 points).
Outside the box: Chaves netted his first goal since April 23, when the Fire played to a 1-1 draw against the Houston Dynamo. Chaves was leading the Fire at the time in scoring with four goals in Chicago's first six games.
Up next: The Fire wrap up their regular season when they host the Columbus Crew at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Toyota Park.
But the Fire (7-9-16, 37 points) will be dramatically shorthanded when they face Eastern Conference foe D.C. United on Saturday at RFK Stadium.
Defenders Dan Gargan and Cory Gibbs are suspended because of yellow card accumulation, and midfielder Pavel Pardo is out because of a straight red card from Wednesday's 2-1 home loss to FC Dallas.
"We have to finish strong," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "Every time we have an opportunity to step on the field and train or play, it's all about improving as a team. We don't believe in excuses."
"We need to regroup and go over there in D.C. and look for the win," Fire defender Gonzalo Segares said. "[The Dallas loss is] definitely a big blow for us. We've been pushing really hard these past couple of months during the late run and it got us pretty close to being in the position in which we could have been fighting for the playoffs. But with the result [Wednesday], it's just really tough to swallow. We've got two more games to play and like every other game we've got to go out there and get a win."
Segares felt that the heavy dose of cards from that match was the result of last-second frustration in trying to disrupt a superior Dallas side.
"A lot of them were when [Dallas] was on the counter and somehow we had to stop the play," Segares said. "At the beginning of the game, that's how they got many chances. Sometimes you've got to stop those breakaways. Because so many guys got cards, it's definitely going to hurt us -- Gargan, Cory and Pavel with the red card. But we have guys who can step into the starting lineup and help us in the last couple of games."
The Fire have had their share of defensive suspensions already this season, but they have some options to make due in D.C. Segares will remain at left back, Jalil Anibaba could shift to right back, and Klopas might turn to a center back pairing of Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta.
Pardo's absence in the midfield will be a crucial setback as he arguably has been the team's most valuable player during his short tenure. Fire midfielder Marco Pappa will return from international duty with Guatemala.
Several weeks ago it appeared that D.C. (9-11-11, 38 points) would work itself into the playoff picture, thanks mostly because of Dwayne De Rosario's heavy scoring dose. But United is now in the midst of a three-game losing streak, most recently posting a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday.
United does have three home matches left on the docket. But with a five-point deficit from the bottom of the wild card field, D.C.'s quest for a postseason has quickly faded.
The Fire played D.C. to a 1-1 draw on Aug. 18 at Toyota Park. Sebastian Grazzini had a 59th-minute goal for a 1-0 lead, but D.C.'s Josh Wolff found the equalizer in the 73rd minute.
Naturally, the Fire talk has started to shift toward Chicago's 2012 season. While not mathematically eliminated from this year's postseason, the Fire's bid for the playoffs is unrealistic with 37 points (7-9-16), two games remaining and a six-point gap between Chicago and the final wild-card spot.
For a second straight season and for the third time in the Fire's 14-year history, Chicago will miss the playoffs.
Pardo signed a six-month contract for the Fire, and on Wednesday he expressed his desire to stick with the organization for the long-term.
"Of course I'd like to come back," Pardo said. "I was talking about this situation with the people from the Fire, and they want me to be here for the next year. And I want to be here, but not for one year. I'd like to be here for more years. I've integrated with this team, the club and the fans. I'm very happy playing for the Chicago Fire."
Pardo netted a goal during his Fire debut to salvage a 1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union on Aug. 3. Since Pardo's arrival, the Fire have posted a 5-3-4 record and 19 points.
If Chicago maintained that points ratio for an entire 34-game season, the Fire would have wound up with 54 points in 2011. That would have been good enough to win the Eastern Conference, even if the Union wins its final two games.
The Fire have shown through their late run that there are some elements of a nucleus to build around with Pardo and midfielder Sebastian Grazzini if he stays healthy.
"We had 16 to 18 players from last year, and I think it takes some time for players to gel," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said Wednesday. "I think the late additions have helped. I think there's a good core there that you can build on."
As for Klopas removing the interim tag and taking on the coaching role full-time, he did not want to talk about his future following Wednesday's loss. Klopas has posted a 6-5-10 record (28 points) since replacing Carlos de los Cobos.
"For me, we're going to wait to the end and see," Klopas said. "There's going to be a time and place for everything. Right now the time is for us to think about the game in D.C. and nothing else. My focus is going to be on that, preparing the team, getting the team ready to get a win there."
Sebastian Grazzini's late goal for the Fire was all Chicago could muster as FC Dallas gained a two-goal lead and held on for a 2-1 victory on Wednesday in front of 10,362 at Toyota Park. Dallas' Jackson and Daniel Cruz netted goals as the team retained the Brimstone Cup, which has been in its possession since 2002.
The Fire (7-9-16, 37 points) still are mathematically in the playoff picture, but they would need to win out, a couple of teams would need to lose out and Chicago would have to make a jump in goal differential.
Dallas (14-11-7, 49 points) was in control for the entire match, creating its share of scoring chances, while minimizing the Fire's attack. Chicago did not register a shot on goal during the first half, while Dallas lingered around the goal for many stretches, especially in the first 45 minutes.
"We were flat from the beginning," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "We weren't sharp. We were just a step behind everything. Give credit to Dallas. They came out and made it difficult for us."
The Fire eventually registered three shots on goal, but their offensive impact was minimal. Dallas contained forward Dominic Oduro and the rest of the Fire by dropping back so they would not get burned by Oduro's quickness.
"It was really hard for me to get behind the defense," Oduro said. "I think they just dropped back the whole time, so we had to change tactics and play on the right. I was able to get a few balls on that side. But technically they did well by just sitting back."
"I think we were just too naive," Fire defender Gonzalo Segares said. "We've got to be smarter. I think they definitely knew what our strength was and that's our speed and getting behind defenses, and from the beginning they went back and dropped and made us play. That's when we tried to force balls and lost them in tough places. That's how they got so many chances in the beginning. We'd lose the ball easily and they'd counter with really fast guys, and it gave us a lot of trouble."
The Fire's lone offensive contribution came from Grazzini, who netted a goal in the 86th minute off of an Orr Barouch assist.
It took Dallas some time to get on the board, and Jackson finally provided the offense in the 41st minute with a shot aimed toward the right side of the frame past Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson for a 1-0 lead.
While Johnson should have done better on defending against Jackson's goal, he did come up with three saves in the first half, including a clutch stop in the 24th minute against Jackson. During that play, Jackson had a step on Fire defender Jalil Anibaba and looked like he had a sure goal, aiming to the left of the frame. But Johnson reached to his right and was able to corral the shot.
Dallas padded its lead in the 53rd minute with Cruz's volley for a 2-0 advantage. Ricardo Villar took the corner kick from the right side, and Dallas' Zach Loyd headed the ball to Cruz, who shot with his back turned to the goal.
The Fire will try to move forward in their final two matches, beginning at D.C. United on Saturday. But they will be without three of their starters. Defenders Dan Gargan and Cory Gibbs will be out because of yellow card accumulation. And midfielder Pavel Pardo was shown a straight red card on Wednesday in the 79th minute for harshly fouling Villar.
"It was a play where I was a little bit late," Pardo said. "I know it was a foul. But this is the referee's decision. There's no excuse. I got a red card and I apologize because of course when you are with 10 players it's difficult to play to try to win."
Analysis: After posting a four-game home winning streak and working their way back into the postseason picture a bit, the Fire played their worst match since falling to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps.
Whether or not they just did not fully recover from the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup loss to Seattle Sounders FC, Chicago was completely out-played by Dallas in every area on the pitch.
Klopas did not use the absence of Marco Pappa as an excuse. The Fire did not use their schedule as an excuse. Dallas was the team with far more energy and movement and better decision making than Chicago.
Two games remain, and while the Fire claim they will try to field the best team available, it really is time to start taking a look at the rest of their roster in gearing up for next year. Having three starters out for D.C. will assist that process to some degree.
If there is some sort of consolation prize with three games to go, the Fire do have the opportunity to win the Brimstone Cup when they host FC Dallas on Wednesday at Toyota Park. The Brimstone has been in Dallas' hands since 2002.
"The rivalry's been there from the beginning, and the Brimstone Cup is there. But more than anything for us, we're playing at home," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "Now we have three games left and we need to win these matches to give ourselves an opportunity to be in the playoffs."
If the Fire (7-8-16, 37 points) win out, that would put them at 46 points. Currently the New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo are positioned at the final two wild card spots with 43 points apiece with two games to play.
Chicago needs to win out just to give itself a legitimate chance.
"This last month or so, we've termed this as our playoffs," Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said. "That's how we go into every game now. We know there's no room for error and we're just going all out. It's now or never."
The Fire have not lost a regular-season match since their 2-0 defeat at the San Jose Earthquakes on Sept. 10. Chicago is 3-0-1 since then.
"It just stinks that it came together rather late," Nyarko said. "We have all the confidence now, and we're hoping to win out and see what happens in the playoff push. If not, we can definitely build for next year."
The Fire played Dallas (13-11-7, 40 points) to a 1-1 draw on the road on March 19 when Carlos de los Cobos was at the helm as head coach. Chicago's Diego Chaves had the game's first goal in the 17th minute, but Dallas' Milton Rodriguez equalized in the 19th as neither team could find the goal the rest of the way.
The Fire are coming off a 2-0 loss to Seattle Sounders FC in the U.S. Open Cup last Tuesday in Seattle. Chicago spent the bulk of the match trying to fend off the Sounders while creating very little on the offensive side.
"We tried to attack and they did a great job of swarming us and basically trying to get us out of rhythm," Nyarko said. "We couldn't get great looks or touches on the ball. Anytime you looked up there were green jerseys surrounding you. We also rushed into a lot of things, trying to get the ball off our foot quickly. It's extremely tough to go out there to try and get a win."
"I don't want to use excuses, but the turf did affect us a little bit," Klopas said. "The weight of the passes is a little bit different. Our movement was a little bit different. It was wet. We just couldn't get going."
The situation on Wednesday will be much more to the Fire's liking, playing on grass again and in front of their own supporters.
Chicago has finally established itself home-field advantage, something that hadn't existed in recent years. The Fire are 5-2-8 at Toyota Park this year and are in the midst of a four-game home winning streak spanning their Aug. 21 win over Toronto FC through their Sept. 25 victory against the New England Revolution.
Chicago's home points total this year through 15 games (23 points) is an improvement over their 2010 (4-4-7, 19 points) and 2009 (5-4-6, 21 points) seasons at Toyota Park.
Klopas said late last week that the Fire would be without midfielder Marco Pappa, who is playing for Guatemala on Tuesday night against Belize. While Pappa is scheduled to return to Chicago on Wednesday, the combination of a late international match Tuesday night and the travel makes it unlikely that he will suit up.
As for Dallas scoring leader Brek Shea, even though he has put in some work with the U.S. National Team, FC Dallas confirmed that Shea is flying from New York to Chicago to rejoin the team in time for Wednesday's match against the Fire.
Whether Shea will factor into the game remains to be seen. Between Saturday's 90-minute effort during a 1-0 win over Honduras and Tuesday night's match against Ecuador in Harrison, N.J., Shea has had quite a bit on his plate.
Klopas limited Grazzini's minutes at the start to integrate him with the team by midseason. But even still, Grazzini has endured setbacks -- the latest being a hamstring injury that kept him out of a 1-1 draw against the Houston Dynamo on Oct. 1 and limited him to the final minutes of Chicago's 2-0 loss to Seattle Sounders FC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday.
"We pushed him the day before [the Open Cup], I talked to him and he said, 'Coach, I think I can give you 10 minutes,'" Klopas said. "My thought was, at that point, if we get to the second overtime to put him in and have him ready to take a PK, because he's one of our guys who's very good on dead balls.
"I want to put the guy on the field more than anything because he's a special player," Klopas said. "But you've also got to respect what the guy says, how he feels and the injury."
Chicago (7-8-16, 37 points) certainly needs Grazzini to be close to 100 percent with three matches remaining.
Plus, midfielder Marco Pappa will be absent for the Fire's upcoming match against FC Dallas on Wednesday at Toyota Park. Pappa joined the Guatemala national team as it prepares for a match against Belize on Tuesday. Pappa had an offensive awakening on Sept. 28 with a hat trick during the Fire's 3-0 road win over Real Salt Lake.
The Fire are six points behind both the New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo in the final gasp for a wild card spot. Grazzini's presence will be vital as clearly the team missed him during the majority of the Open Cup match.
"Not having a guy like Sebastian hurt us because he can get the ball in the final third and break the other team down individually, or with his passing," Klopas said. "Having another guy who can get the ball and hold it in situations would have been nice, but things happen. We can't dwell on the past. We've got to move forward and refocus our energy on making the playoffs."
"His creativeness, how he draws players and tries to free up other players, that was missing in the Seattle game, obviously," Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said. "We could have used him, absolutely. The coaching staff didn't want to risk it. He wasn't fit, and we thought other guys could step up. Unfortunately, that day it didn't work for us. But we're happy to get him back for the remainder of the season and hopefully help us for a playoff push. He's been huge for us."
Ferdinand just chatter: During the past several days, rumors were circulating about the possibility of Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand being linked to the Fire, particularly with his contract coming to a close soon.
The Fire have dismissed the validity of these reports and rumors, though Klopas will be screening for any phone calls from Man U.
"Ferdinand and Sir Alex [Ferguson], they have my number if he wants to come," Klopas said. "They can call me, but they haven't yet. That's all I can tell you. The door's open."
Beckerman headbutt costs two more: Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman was handed down an additional two-game suspension by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for headbutting Fire midfielder Daniel Paladini on Sept. 28. Beckerman was issued a straight red card and served a one-game suspension during Salt Lake's Oct. 1 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy.