The Chicago Fire have prided themselves on their defense all season long. They hadn't allowed more than two goals in a game for 24 games with Jon Busch in goal. The team had outscored opponents 30-20. Busch's 10 shutouts were top in the league.
And then reality sunk in.
Sunday afternoon, the Fire dropped a 4-1 decision to FC Dallas on their home turf. It was a rude awakening for a team that was sitting pretty in the standings. Chicago still has 38 points, which puts it in third place in the East and fourth place overall. But the Fire isn't expecting their last five games to be a walk in the park.
"The last two opponents we've played have shown they're playing with their backs against the wall, fighting to get into the playoffs," Fire head coach Denis Hamlett said. "We've sort of taken our foot off of the gas. We're not in the playoffs yet. If we continue to play like this, we won't be in the playoffs."
One of the strongest qualities of the Fire all season has been every individual contributing team defense. Against FC Dallas, the Fire couldn't seem to stop any plays. Busch has had nothing but positive things to say about his defense, but Sunday afternoon he was taken aback.
"Today, plain and simple, we got our butt kicked," Busch said. "We didn't play well. We had no desire or heart. They wanted it more."
In just the second minute, Jeff Cunningham found the net. And before the half was over, Aaron Pitchkolan and Bruno Guarda gave FC Dallas a 3-0 lead. Cunningham tallied his second of the day early in the second half to make it 4-0.
Fire forward Brian McBride said there is one thing especially the side needs to work on.
"The first half needs to be better," McBride said. "When you put yourself down early, it's hard to get back into the game. Today we might have become a bit impatient. If a team scores early, that shouldn't change things. If anything, that should wake us up."
McBride provided the majority of the Fire's attack Sunday afternoon. McBride had three shots, including the Fire's only goal, heading home a Justin Mapp cross in second-half stoppage time. Perhaps more telling, right back Brandon Prideaux had two shots, while seven others had one shot apiece.
With only five games left and literally the entire league with a mathematical chance of making the playoffs, the Fire could have a long road ahead of them. Thursday night, they play host to the Los Angeles Galaxy, another opponent in a must-win situation.
"It's time for the men to step up and the boys to sit on the porch," Busch said. "We're supposed to get results. That's our job. Now we're in a dogfight."
Veteran defender Diego Gutierrez said the loss to Dallas seemed somewhat surreal at times.
"This result is very unlike us," Diego Gutierrez said. "This outing is one we have to learn from. This one is hard to swallow. But now we need to get ready for Thursday."
Kathryn L. Knapp is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.