By the numbers: It's always something
As we get clear of the All-Star break, there's one number that stands out like a guy in a bright blue Italian national team jersey in the sea of red that is Section 8, not that I know anyone who might have worn such a thing for that A.C. Milan match. Of the 15 regular-season matches where the Fire have scored the first goal, the "Men in Red" have lost three. Three games might not seem like a lot, but it's the highest number in the league in a category I'm sure the team would rather not be leading. Winning two of those games means never having to hear all manner of writers and broadcasters talk about "games in hand" again.
Almost as striking is the counterpart to that statistic: The Fire have never won this season when giving up the first goal, going 0-4-2 in those matches.
While the Fire's rise to the top of the Eastern Conference has been impressive, these numbers are cause for concern. In many of the Fire's losses this season, there have been reasons. Not excuses, but certainly obstacles you could point to that the Fire have been unable to overcome, whether it be national team call-ups, injuries, heavy schedules, or some combination of these. So, on some level, you can rationalize a loss or a poor performance due to circumstances. Dropping a 4-1 decision when you start four rookies in 100-degree heat a mile in the sky in your seventh game in about 28 days suddenly doesn't seem all that bad, or at least not all that unexpected.
The flip side of this is that it's been rare, and almost unheard of, for this year's Fire squad to reach down and find a way to triumph over adversity, to dig themselves out of a hole. It's the classic situation where, for example, the team who suffers a red card ejection rallies to win. Through the first half of the season, I don't know that you would bet on the Fire to respond like that. What's more, they have been vulnerable to teams who have been able to rally and come from behind.
Don't get me wrong, this is a very good team. Players have been stepping up and performing well from all parts of the field and from all parts of their careers. The rookie contingent has been nothing short of amazing. Goals have come from no less than eight players who weren't on the squad in last year's disappointing season, which is as good an indicator as you could possibly find of the magnitude of the turnaround from last year.
And yet, something's still missing. The difference between very good and great lies somewhere in this notion of overcoming adversity, of fighting back, and it's something that this team has been unable to do so far.
So, the question is, do they have it in them? Can the Fire find this kind of strength going into the final third of the season? With nearly seven weeks on the road coming up, they are certainly going to have no shortage of decks stacked against them. As front-runners in the East - excepting for those pesky games in hand - they'll also have a target on their back. Teams are going to want to take it to them early, and that may mean giving up an early goal on the road on more than one occasion. The stage is set.
Recent signs have been encouraging. The confidence boost of standing toe to toe with world power A.C. Milan may play a big part, particularly for Logan Pause, whose move to right back has been a revelation, and rookie Chris Rolfe, who, at this point last year, probably wasn't imagining he would have a goal against the reigning runner-up of the UEFA Champions League on his résumé. National team duty for Chris Armas, Tony Sanneh, Ivan Guerrero and Samuel Caballero in the Gold Cup meant training with and playing against the best players in the region, and they bring that back from country to club. Finally, getting the likes of Thiago and Nate Jaqua back into the lineup after injuries means the roster will certainly have the talent to finish strong.
What remains to be seen is whether or not they have the resolve, the killer instinct to fight back when down and put the game out of reach when ahead. With 11 regular-season games left, it's time to see what these guys are made of.