Hot Streak Puts Chicago Fire Back In Playoff Picture

The Chicago Fire have turned their once lost season around and now find themselves contending for the MLS playoffs. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

After a horrible start that say them fall into last place as late as Aug. 7, the Fire have surged back into the playoff race with 17 points in their past eight games.

Addicts often talk about the need to hit rock bottom before a recovery can stick. The Chicago Fire -- whose addiction was losing -- woke up in the metaphorical gutter on Aug. 8

After losing to the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-2 on Aug. 7, the Fire found themselves in the running for the worst team in MLS. They had, after all, just lost to the Whitecaps, their main competition for that label, and were in the midst of a winless run that would eventually stretch 22 matches. On that day, the Fire were sitting at 19 points, in last place in the awful Eastern Conference and 10 points off the playoff pace.

Basically, there was little reason to believe it was going to get better for any other reason than it couldn't get much worse.

A funny thing happened, though. The Fire got better. A lot better. Like, better enough that they now find themselves in a position where a win on Saturday against the Houston Dynamo, could put them in a playoff spot.

Fire Get Hot

A look at how the Fire have played since Aug. 7:
Date Opponent Result
8/13/2011 at New York T, 2-2
8/18/2011 vs. DC United T, 1-1
8/21/2011 vs. Toronto FC W, 2-0
8/27/2011 vs. Colorado W, 2-0
9/10/2011 at San Jose L, 2-0
9/17/2011 vs. Chivas USA W, 3-2
9/25/2011 vs. New England W, 3-2
9/28/2011 at Real Salt Lake W, 3-0
10/1/2011 at Houston

In the eight MLS matches since that low point, the Fire have lost just once and claimed 17 points. That's a rate of 2.125 points per match or nearly triple the rate at which they were claiming points during the season's first 22 matches.

As with any drastic turnaround, it was no one thing, but a collection of interconnected parts. New players were added. Existing players were moved into roles to which they were better suited. Tactics were tweaked.

New faces

The most obvious changes have been the additions of midfielders Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini and defender Dan Gargan. The three veterans have helped stabilize areas where the Fire had previously struggled to find consistency and, more importantly, have allowed other players to move into positions in which they've thrived.

Of the three, Pardo's acquisition was both the most publicized and the one met with the most skepticism. Pardo came to the Fire after a career spent mostly in Mexico. He had most recently played for Mexican giant Club America and had accumulated 148 caps with the Mexican national team. 

While his resume is impossible to question, at 35 years old there were questions about how much he really had left in the tank. Throw in the fact that the Fire were mired near the bottom of the standings, and his acquisition had all the looks of a ploy to attract Hispanic fans to Toyota Park.

The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Instead of a player on his last legs just looking for a final paycheck, the Fire found a player with an impressive work rate, who can still be an effective deep-lying playmaker. He has played all 90 minutes in nine of his 10 appearances and registered four assists.

"He’s a very experienced, talented player who speaks excellent English and is a very good organizer of a team, so he’s helped stabilize them in the middle of midfield," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said of Pardo. 

Grazzini has done much of the same thing as more of an offensive minded central midfielder. The 30-year-old Argentinian came to the Fire with almost no fanfare, signing for a reported $48,000 a year, but has been arguably the biggest part of the Fire's turnaround.

In just 600 minutes, Grazzini has compiled three goals and four assists. That's 1.05 goals+assists per 90 minutes, a figure that ranks among the best in the league. Since Grazzini and Pardo entered the starting lineup, both on Aug. 3, the Fire have been +5 on goal-difference after posting a -5 goal-difference in the previous 20 games.

The final part of the veteran trio is Toronto FC castoff Gargan. After starting 37 games over parts of two seasons for TFC, Gargan was traded to Fire for Desan Robinson and a draft pick in late July. He made his Fire debut on Aug. 13. The right back has started seven matches and the Fire have registered three shutouts in those games.

New Roles

Just as important as the veteran trio's actual contributions is the freedom their presence gave Klopas to move around other players. The biggest benefactor has clearly been Dominic Oduro.

In his sixth MLS season, Oduro has finally started to make good on his obvious physical talents. After an early-season trade from the Dynamo to the Fire, then coach Carlos de los Cobos tried to shoehorn Oduro into the midfield. The experiment didn't seem entirely crazy, as playing as right mid would allow Oduro to play more facing the goal and to use his speed to run past players on the wing. 

Klopas stayed with the experiment initially, but eventually gave in and moved Oduro back to forward on June 26. Klopas tried several pairings with Oduro before finally finding one that worked. That ended up being fellow Ghanian Patrick Nyarko, who made his season debut at forward in that Aug. 7 game. Although the Fire obviously lost, Oduro scored a goal and Nyarko had an assist.

It turned out to be a sign of things to come. Oduro went on to score five more goals in his next seven games and Nyarko has picked up three more assists and a goal since then. Oduro and Nyarko have now combined for 12 goals and 10 assists, making them among the most prolific strike forces in the league.

Somewhat less obviously, but arguably just as importantly, Gargan's presence allowed rookie Jalil Anibaba to come back into the lineup, this time at his natural center back position. When he had played earlier in the year, Anibaba had been used mostly at right back, a position he ended up not being particularly well suited for. As a center back, he's looked far more comfortable and has formed a nice partnership with Cory Gibbs.

New tactics

The Fire opened the season with intentions to deploy a three-back formation. But that was scrapped by the second game of the season. De los Cobos experimented with several formations and Klopas continued that trend, as the Fire have used no fewer than six different tactical set-ups.

With Pardo able to hold down the defensive midfielder duties by himself, Klopas has now settled on a 4-1-3-2. He first deployed that formation on Aug. 18 and he has stuck with it ever since. In those seven games, the Fire have gone 5-1-1 and scored an average of 2.0 goals per game.

The formational shift has allowed Marco Pappa to forgo some of his defensive responsibilities, an area at which he never excelled, to focus more on the offensive side. Although normally listed as a right midfielder, he's been given much more of a free role. The Guatemalan has not necessarily put up great numbers, but he has helped create chances.

Against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, he finally broke out. Pappa scored a hat trick, ending a 12-match goal-less drought and ending a stretch of games that had seen him score just once since May 14.

As strange as it may seem, the Fire are close to turning this into a special season. In addition to finding themselves in thick of a playoff race, they also have a chance to win a record-tying fifth U.S. Open Cup when they play the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday. 

Even if they miss the playoffs and lose to the Sounders, they at least have something to build on. Their losing ways may not be cured, but there is now at least a light at the end of the tunnel.

To see how the Fire do this weekend, be sure to follow SB Nation Soccer's StoryStream. For more on the Fire, check out Hot Time In Old Town.

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