BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – They might have 11 games left on their regular-season schedule, but from here on out, every game is a playoff game for the Chicago Fire.
Carlos de los Cobos’ men – who sit five points behind San Jose for the eighth and final playoff spot – start their “postseason” journey on Saturday, when they’ll take on the league-leading LA Galaxy in a crucial MLS match at Toyota Park.
“We need the points, we need the playoff mentality, we need a miracle,” Fire defender C.J. Brown told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “We need everything right now.
“It’s that point in the year where you’re getting close to knocking yourself out. We don’t want that so we’ve got to really make something happen in the next few games.”
Here are three keys for this weekend’s match:
1) Limit Donovan and Buddle. The Fire back four isn’t operating under any false pretenses. They know that Galaxy attackers Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle will get their chances. Their job? Limit those chances to a manageable number and hope – hope beyond hope – that the dangerous duo doesn’t punish them when they break free.
“All you do is try to slow them down,” Brown said. “They’re both very talented. Buddle’s obviously had a good first half of the season and Landon is Landon, he’s just an exceptional player. You try to stay on your toes and try to limit the opportunities they have.”
The key to limiting Donovan and Buddle’s chances will be Chicago’s marking. The Fire need to play high-pressure defense on the World Cup vets, not allowing them room to operate inside the Chicago half.
2) Strike early. LA have shown a nasty penchant for giving up the early goal in recent weeks. They’ve conceded first in three of their last four MLS matches – losing all three times they gave up the opening goal.
The Fire know all about the Galaxy’s early-game defensive struggles – they scored three goals in the first 20 minutes at LA on Aug. 1 – and they’ll be looking to take a quick lead again on Saturday afternoon.
If they are to take the early advantage, Chicago need to come out strong. The Fire will need to test Donovan Ricketts and take advantage of any mistake LA might make in the final third.
“If you see the two goals [they gave up against Kansas City last weekend] they were just pure defensive mistakes,” Fire forward Collins John told MLSsoccer.com. “So we have to make sure we’re very sharp in front of the goal and that we put away the chances that we get.”
3) Handle the pressure. The Fire will be under a lot of pressure on Saturday. A sellout crowd will be expecting the squad to earn a good result and the team itself knows a loss would severely damage any playoff hopes.
“It’s obviously natural that as things get closer and closer to playoff time you feel more and more of the pressure,” Fire midfielder John Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com. “This game certainly has a bit of that feel for us. We know exactly where we’re at. We know the situation and we’ve got to start picking up points.”
If they are to pick up points, the Fire need to effectively manage that pressure. They’ll need to stay focused throughout the entire 90 minutes – something with which the club has had trouble this season – to have any shot at picking up what would be a crucial victory.
For his part, Thorrington is confident the Fire will be able to handle the pressure.
“I think we’re all incredibly focused,” he said. “We know that this is a big game for us and a big game for our fans and we certainly won’t want to disappoint them.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.