The Curious Case Of The Chicago Fire's Middling Ranking

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - SEPTEMBER 02: Sean Johnson #25 of the Chicago Fire makes a save against the Houston Dynamo during an MLS match at Toyota Park on September 2, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated the Dynamo 3-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Fire seem to be consistently ranked below their status in the standings, so we asked our voters what went into their thinking.

As should be plainly obvious, SB Nation's MLS Power Rankings are supposed to be a fun exercise. We ask each of our soccer editors to rank the teams from 1-19, take the average, put them in order and then write something short and sweet about each one. Ideally, it's supposed to be some mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis. If they were simply a reflection of the league table, well, that would kind of defeat the purpose.

This mixture has a tendency to elicit responses, which is obviously not a bad thing. Almost every week for the past couple months, though, those responses have come mostly from fans of the Chicago Fire, a team that seems to consistently be ranked below their status in the standings.

The Fire are a bit of an interesting case, it turns out.

For one, no team has been more stable in our rankings. They were ranked No. 11 in our preseason rankings. Since then, they've never dropped lower than 12 or, as is the cause of recent frustration, higher than No. 7.

As a point of contrast, the San Jose Earthquakes were ranked 17th in our preseason poll, slowly moved up the charts and have now been ranked No. 1 for 11 straight weeks. Toronto FC opened the season as our No. 13 team, got as high as No. 11 and have now spent more time at No. 19 than any other side.

The results don't seem to have affected the Fire in the same way. Take the last two polls as an example: last week, they lost to D.C. United and actually moved up to No. 7; this week, they beat the Houston Dynamo but dropped to No. 8.

Proof that our editors are ignoring the Fire's results or just an example of how they aren't so easily swayed by one game?

To get to the bottom of this, I actually asked our voters to explain their thinking.

Black and Red United's Chest Rockwell, who ranks the Fire eighth, said it's about the big picture:

Chicago's 3-1 win over the Dynamo looks good on paper, until you throw in the lucky break of Macoumba Kandji's goal being called back - admit it, Fire fans: You know MLS refs let that stand half the time - and take note of the fact that they beat up a tired team who had traveled to the Windy City from Honduras. For Chicago, the win followed a 4-2 loss against DC United - who were playing on short rest - that could have easily been 5-1 or 4-0; both of those scorelines would have more accurately reflected how the game went. It's that kind of hit-or-miss form that leaves the Fire out of the discussion of the top clubs.

Along those lines, it's worth pointing out that the Fire's longest unbeaten streak this season is four games and they've yet to win more than three in a row. On the flip side, they've yet to lose more than two straight. There's just never been enough momentum in either direction to move them very far.

Some of our voters are also looking beyond simple results. Sounder at Heart's Sidereal, who has them all the way down at No. 10, is unimpressed by some of the periphery numbers:

Chicago has only had one road win over a good team (Sporks), it was in June, it was a 1-0 win, and the goal was scored by a guy who isn't on the team anymore. And if you want to weigh recent results more heavily, yes they've been doing a lot more winning recently, but they also got crushed by a DC United team that otherwise can't buy a win. Oddly, I was higher on Chicago (and the underlying stats were more impressive) when they weren't getting as good results earlier in the season. Now they're net negative on shots and shots on goal but are getting more wins. That argues for some lucky bounces.

Although Jeff Sagarin's ratings don't dig quite that deep, they are one of the more quantitative analysis rankings out there. His rankings place the Fire at No. 6, but they also help explain one of the oddities about the Fire. Although they have a 4-2-3 record against teams in the Top 5 of the ratings, which is more points than any other team, that record slumps to a middling 5-5-4 against teams in the Top 10.

That seems to help explain what is troubling Dynamo Theory's Fuzion:

The one thing holding them back is a single word, inconsistency. Until they can prove this is not just a streaky period of quality play by linking 4 GOOD games in a row they won't ever crack the top 5 for me.

Even among voters who ranked the Fire relatively high, there's still a sense an unease. SB Nation Soccer's North America editor Ryan Rosenblatt has them higher than any other voter, but notes that he sees why there's rampant skepticism:

I ranked the Fire fourth and have had them in my top five for a bit now so I believe in them, but I can see why many don't. Do you really believe in Sean Johnson to eliminate the brain cramps? Does that central midfield inspire much confidence? Is Dominic Oduro really supposed to be the go-to scorer on an elite team? This team, for all of their wins, doesn't have anywhere on the field where they look exceptional.

It's worth pointing out, too, that this is not a phenomena limited to SB Nation. MLSsoccer.com has the Fire ranked No. 7, which is the same as ProSoccerTalk. The highest we could find the Fire ranked was by Goal.com, which has them at No. 5.

Of course, the goal of any season is not to impress the people covering the teams, but to put up good results on the field. SB Nation Soccer's Phillip Quinn puts it succinctly when explaining his thought process:

Have a good September, and I'll rank you higher than 7th.

That just about sums it up.

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