BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- One month ago the playoffs looked like an inconceivable destination for the Chicago Fire, especially following a 4-2 loss to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps on Aug. 7.
But a 2-0-2 record since that match and eight points later, and all of a sudden the Fire are knocking on the postseason door, though they still have some work to do.
The Fire are shooting for their third straight victory when they face the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium. Chicago (4-7-15, 27 points) is slightly ahead of San Jose (5-10-11, 26 points) as both teams attempt to close the gap for the final position in the wild card race. Heading into the weekend, that final spot is held by the New York Red Bulls (32 points).
"It's a big game coming up in San Jose this weekend, because they're a team also that's desperate for points, and we're playing away," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "So our mentality, our approach, our focus, concentration and intensity for 90 minutes has to be there. It's going to be a difficult match, but we're in it."
San Jose is in a position that Chicago had felt for much of the season, posting a long winless streak that has now reached 13 games (0-7-6). Before the Quakes' current skid, which started on mid-June, San Jose had pieced together a 4-0-1 stretch and had a modest 5-4-4 record.
"We know that they are also out of the playoffs looking in, trying to get wins," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "They've had a little bit of a winless streak for quite some time, so they're going to be flying. We need to match that intensity, and hopefully we'll create some chances and score some goals."
The tide has turned a bit for Chicago. Dominic Oduro is finding the goal on a regular basis with his team-leading nine tallies. The defense has posted back-to-back shutouts. And the breaks and bounces have started to shift toward the Fire's direction, such as Toronto FC hitting the frame on two shots and Chicago earning the 2-0 win on Aug. 21.
"At some point our season had to open up," Fire defender Cory Gibbs said. "We've had a lot of bad luck, of things just not going our way early in the season. A lot of those ties, especially. At some point you get a run going."
Chicago cannot slow down with only eight matches remaining and five points separating the team from the current postseason cut.
The last time the Fire posted three straight league wins was from May 16-28, 2009. The May 28 win over Chivas USA capped off a 5-0-6 start to the season before Chicago lost the next three and could not post back-to-back wins the rest of the way. The Fire would fall to eventual MLS champion Real Salt Lake in the Eastern Conference title match.
But as Chicago stumbled in the win column in the latter half of its 2009 campaign, this year's Fire have found some life at the most critical juncture of the season.
The Fire do have to overcome a defensive hurdle for Saturday. Left back Gonzalo Segares is suspended because of yellow card accumulation, so some things will need to be shuffled around on the back line. Based on Klopas' remarks this week, the top two options appear to be shifting right back Dan Gargan or center back Gibbs to that left side.
The team reiterated this adjustment should not have any bearing on the way the Fire approach Saturday.
"What our team is about and how we've gone about our business, that doesn't change," Pause said. "Our style of play is not going to change. I think Gonzalo will be missed, but that's why we have guys knocking on the door to come in and step up."
San Jose coincidentally is in a similar position with midfielder Bobby Convey out of the lineup because of yellow card accumulation.
Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski leads his side with nine goals. San Jose and former Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch has played in every minute this season, posting 90 saves, six shutouts and a 1.35 goals allowed average in 26 matches. Busch's counterpart, Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, has six shutouts in 20 matches, saving 50 shots and posting a 1.25 goals allowed average.