Fire Clinch Playoff Berth for First Time Since 2009!
The Fire entered the 2012 with high expectations after a late season surge in 2011 that resulted in the team almost qualifying for the playoffs after having been sitting in last in the conference for much of the season. The surge, led by newcomers Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo in the midfield and Dominic Oduro, whom the team traded for after their first game of the season, whose resurgence into one of the top goal scorers in the league was unpredictable. The Fire came up just short with a New York Red Bulls victory that came just days after the Fire miraculous comeback in stoppage to down D.C. United 2-1.
With the strength of what was to be a full season of Grazzini and Pardo, the club opened up the season with expectations of competing for the Eastern Conference crown. Unfortunately, the season began with poor performance across the board and plenty of controversy would follow.
The Fire’s first game was scheduled against the Montreal Impact, the expansion franchise’s first ever home game, and the Fire lost a close 1-1 match, but would come home to defeat the Philadelphia Union 1-0, as Oduro sought to prove that his 2011 was no fluke. Without starting goalkeeper Sean Johnson, Paolo Tornaghi filled in early on in the season, but the Fire would not live up quite to the expectations placed upon them in April, as the lost 2-0 to Colorado, tied Houston 1-1, beating Toronto 3-2 in a match that should not have been that close, and losing to Seattle 2-1 at Toyota Park, in a match in which Marco Pappa scored directly off of a corner kick and a Fire goal was taken back for offsides. Chris Rolfe made a triumphant return to the team, signing on in April.
May only brought moderate improvement, as the Fire went 3-2-1, a respectable record as they played Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, Portland, FC Dallas, and Columbus, but lost in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup to the Michigan Bucks of the amateur Premier Development League 3-2. The Fire simply did not take the opponent seriously at all, and were thrown off by the indoor playing environment. By this point, defender Austin Berry had begun to solidify himself as a prime Rookie of the Year candidate, and had a roller-coaster ride of a game against Chivas USA.
The Fire surged to solidify a playoff spot for the time being in June, as the club went 4-0-0, pulling off big wins against conference rivals New England Revolution 2-0, New York Red Bulls 3-1 (despite the controversial no goal call after New York’s Conde kicked the ball back out of the net, robbing the by-then severely struggling Dominic Oduro), Columbus Crew 2-1, and Sporting Kansas City 1-0. The Kansas City match proved significant as it showed that the Fire could take on the top clubs in the East, and because the Brazilian international Alex made his MLS and Fire debuts.
July brought a packed schedule in which the club hit a minor road-bump in their path to the postseason. The team drew defending Eastern Conference champion Houston Dynamo 0-0, but proceeded to lost 2-0 to the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy. The Fire beat Vancouver for the first time in the Whitecaps’ two-year history, before falling to New York. Playing in their first international friendly of the year, though obviously not as big of an attraction as the match against Manchester United in 2011, the Fire fell to Aston Villa 1-0, before tying the Supporters’ Shield-hopeful San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 on the road to close out the month. The San Jose game brought minor controversy as many fans felt that the referees allowed San Jose too much extra stoppage time before they tied the game late. Throughout the month, the Fire continued to add to the team, acquiring Seattle’s Alvaro Fernandez, loading out Puppo and Robayo, and signing Sherjill MacDonald, despite losing star midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, who was officially loaned to an Argentinian team in August.
In August, the Fire began their best stretch of the season, winning three in a row against Toronto, Philadelphia, and New England, before their worst performance of the year, and the first time they had allowed more than two goals in a MLS Regular Season match all season, a 4-2 defeat to D.C. United. Following the game, Marco Pappa who had already announced it would be his last season with the Fire, was transferred to SC Heerenvenn. However, the Fire had all but forgotten about that defeat as September rolled around, as they beat Houston, came back with their bench for a 2-2 draw in a friendly against Santos Laguna, and then beat Toronto, Montreal, and Columbus. The club would make a couple of minor additions, trading for Colorado’s Well Thomspon on September 10th and signing Guillermo Franco on September 14th.
At the end of September, the Fire played Sporting Kansas City on the road, looking to sweep the season series and take over first place in the Eastern Conference, but inconsistent officiating helped KC to a 2-0 victory. The Fire returned home against the lowly Philadelphia Union, only to allow more than two goals for the second time of the season and be defeated at home by an Eastern Conference team for the first time since 2010. The Fire had fallen all the way down to fourth, and things were beginning to get worrisome for Fire fans, as the team was set to play New York at Red Bull Arena, but Sherjill MacDonald led to Fire to a 2-0 win ahead of Columbus’s 1-1 draw to Kansas City today that clinched the playoffs for Chicago.
The Fire have a bye week before playing the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium on the 20th, after which the Fire play host to D.C. United and seek revenge on the 27th. Playoffs are set to begin in early November, dependent upon what seed the Fire ultimately end up in.