BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Chicago Fire coach Frank Klopas couldn't help but peek at the score of the New England-Columbus game at halftime of the Chicago's 1-0 win over Toronto FC on Saturday, even though he knew the other match's score wouldn't affect the result his club needed.
If anything, New England's 3-2 win over Columbus increased the urgency of a win at Toyota Park, where the score was tied 0-0 at the half. If Columbus had won or tied, the Fire could have clinched, but with the Revolution win, a loss or draw could have put them in seventh.
“Believe me, every time I went back, I looked at it. I saw 2-2, then 3-2, but in the end, it's really up to us,” Klopas said. “So regardless of what they do, if we take care of business, then we're there. If we don't get three points tonight, it doesn't really matter what happens with the other teams.”
Chicago had several chances throughout the game, but it took a controversial penalty kick call in the 63rd minute, when a free kick hit Jonathan Osorio in the arm as he turned sideways in the TFC penalty box, to allow Mike Magee to score the winning goal.
“I thought we had control of the game,” Nyarko said. “We created chances, but we hit the post and stuff like that … I think we created chances when we wanted, but we just couldn't put the game away. But it was good that we got the one goal and worked it out.”
Nyarko admits he glanced at the jumbotron a time or two throughout the game, trying to glean the result of the other Eastern Conference game that could have turned the aftermath Saturday's win into a celebration.
But Nyarko has also seen the pitfalls of clinching early. He saw his team back into the playoffs last season with a few disappointing results after sealing a top five spot. Sunday's results put Chicago in fourth place, tied on points with third-place Montreal and a point ahead of fifth-place New England, who themselves are level on points with sixth-place Houston.
And Nyarko doesn't see that as all bad, aside from the glaring fact that a loss or a tie in the finale could end their season.
“I always think back to last year when we clinched early and we took our concentration off a little bit and that didn't help us going into the playoffs,” Nyarko said. “This momentum we're building, [we're] keeping our concentration focused.”
The Fire don't have as many points or wins as last season – not even close. They can finish with 15 wins if they're victorious next week against New York, two shy of last year.
But Klopas sees something different in this year's group, who climbed higher in the standings on Saturday than they have all season. This team has seen the depths of the Eastern Conference. They've been forced to retool and look closely at their flaws after a 2-7-1 start, and they've improved.
So if Chicago are victorious against New York next week, which could be the necessary result with sixth-place New England sitting one point back, Klopas sees a different team than the one that flamed out in the wild card round last season.
“The team stuck together,” Klopas said. “All of those games, even adversity in the beginning, made us a better team. I think you get better through difficult moments, and I think this team right now is better in that sense than the team that I had last year, winning 17 games. So, [we] don't clinch tonight, it doesn't matter, we'll just focus on the next game.
“We're just excited to have the opportunity to play another game because one day going by without soccer is not good for us.”