Welp…Here we are.
After two March games, a season suspension, the MLS is Back Tournament, a month break, two resumptions of play and 22 games later, the enigma that is 2020 comes down to Decision Day.
90 minutes against New York City FC at Soldier Field. Win and the Fire are in. Anything less than that, and it becomes a painstaking amount of scoreboard watching.
Here’s what Sunday afternoon along the lakefront will look like in what is essentially a final…
Straight from the MLS office, here is what needs to happen in order for the Fire to qualify for the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs:
- Chicago Fire win vs. New York City FC
-- OR --
- Chicago Fire tie vs. New York City FC AND
- Atlanta United lose or tie vs. Columbus Crew SC AND
- Inter Miami CF lose or tie vs. FC Cincinnati
-- OR --
- Atlanta United lose vs. Columbus Crew SC AND
- Inter Miami CF lose or tie vs. FC Cincinnati AND
- D.C. United lose or tie vs. Montréal Impact
If the Fire go through, they will take on either Nashville SC or the New York Red Bulls on Friday, Nov. 20.
NEW YORK DREAMIN’
While the Decision Day headlines may belong to Chicago in this fixture, NYCFC have plenty to play for.
Ronny Deila’s group currently sits in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, 0.11 points per game off of Columbus, who sit in fourth.
NYCFC need a win at Soldier Field in addition to a loss from Columbus to jump the Crew and earn a quarterfinal fixture at Yankee Stadium. Columbus plays host to a desperate Atlanta United side, who need a win in addition to some help from Montreal to get into the playoffs.
It’s not nearly as straightforward for NYCFC to reach their goal of hosting a playoff game, but they certainly have incentive. Especially with the two-week international break, they will not be taking their foot off the gas or rolling out anything less than their full squad.
SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
While these two teams have already met in 2020, both sides look very different compared to their first meeting on Aug. 29, a 3-1 decision in favor of NYCFC.
NYCFC’s leading goal-scorer from 2019, Héber, went down with a season-ending ACL injury against Toronto FC in late September.
Alexandru Mitrita, one of their more dangerous attacking players, went back across the pond on loan with a Saudi Arabian club to be closer to his pregnant wife who is expecting their first child.
Maxi Moralez, one of the most exciting midfielders in MLS, is fully fit and started in NYCFC’s convincing 5-2 win over Red Bulls in the Hudson River derby last weekend. Moralez was just getting back from injury when the Fire and Pigeons met back in August.
The backline and midfield look the same for Ronny Deila. They are a fun, attacking team who commit numbers forward much like Minnesota United, whom the Fire drew 2-2 on Wednesday. Anton Tinnerholm is one of the best right backs in MLS, and got my vote for MLS Best XI. The Swede recorded a goal and an assist against the Fire in the 3-1 win.
Alex Ring had a BANGER against the Red Bulls and remains one of the most steady and reliable No. 6’s in the league alongside Keaton Parkes. Parkes will play in a much more comfortable No. 8 position compared to a couple months ago when he had to play in Moralez’s No. 10 spot.
In the absence of Mitrita, Gary Mackay-Steven has filled in and done a nice job, but doesn’t offer Mitrita’s ability in 1-v-1 situations. Valentin “Tati” Castellanos is filling in for Héber and is coming off a hat trick and an assist against the Red Bulls. Castellanos was lethal in and around the penalty area. He has five goals on the season.
On the whole, the identity and goals of NYCFC are the same. They will open the game up and play good football. Ring is a fulcrum that can make your defense shift 30 yards to the left or right, while the likes of Medina and Moralez want to link up and burn defenders in 1-v-1 situations. Ronald Matarrita and Tinnerholm essentially have the green light to go forward, so they are definitely vulnerable on the counter.
Chicago gave them everything they could handle last time they played, and arguably were the better team for the majority of the game. However, as the 2020 season has gone for the Fire, they didn’t get the result that they might have deserved. Keep in mind, this was also a game in which Connor Sparrow started in goal with Bobby Shuttleworth out due to an injury he picked up in the previous match.
NYCFC don’t boast a boisterous press like the Red Bulls or even the Fire, but they will squeeze you at times.
What makes NYCFC so good is their ability to capitalize when you do make a mistake. Almost every goal that the Red Bulls conceded in their 5-2 defeat in the Hudson River Derby was off of a mistake in the back. Moralez, Medina and Castellanos are all ruthless when they win the ball in deep areas and make sure to punish you when given the chance.
Moralez is perhaps the best at this in the league. Once a centerback or outside back is out of position when giving the ball away, Moralez is already aware of where the space is and exploits it ruthlessly. Keeping him in check when the Fire have the ball - and especially when they don’t - is going to be crucial if they are to get three points and book their ticket to the postseason.
What else is left to say?
Going into this week the scenario was as follows: Get a point in Minnesota and go get three at home against NYCFC. They got their point - albeit in excruciating fashion - and now have their chance, at Soldier Field, to get to the postseason. This is a game you live for as a player, and one that leaves you a few hairs grayer as a fan.
The story of the Fire this year has been one of missing opportunities while simultaneously putting in very solid performances. They’ve been tantalizingly close to a number of quality wins over the likes of Columbus, Red Bulls, Minnesota, and Sporting Kansas City, yet here we are on Decision Day and Raphael Wicky and the Fire find themselves in a fight for survival.
This is a final. The boys have said that’s exactly how they’re treating it. As a broadcaster, I will do the same. I can’t wait until my producer gives me that countdown… “5, 4, 3, 2 to Tyler, 1….” For me, that’s my signal that we’re entering one of the great happenings of sports: Do or die.
For the eleven members of the Fire and for you at home, it’s when you hear that whistle. That high-pitched screech that will echo throughout an unfortunately empty Soldier Field. You’d be kidding yourself if you think they won’t empty the tank and give 100% of their soul, just the same as if you were there too.