Simply put, the MLS Eastern Conference is a mess.
Despite having 24 points after 24 matches, the Chicago Fire have since gone on a mini run to get back in the playoff race. Three wins in the last four matches have the Fire with 33 points from 28 matches.
An 8-11-9 record is still not good, but the Fire are a mere point from the seventh and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. A deeper look shows things aren’t quite as good as that one point gap would indicate.
The standings from sixth to 10th are incredibly close. Two of those five teams will make the playoffs.
Here’s how it looks after the weekend’s results, which saw New England, Montreal, Orlando and Toronto all draw in separate matches:
6. New England, 35 points, 8 matches remaining
7. Montreal, 34 points, 7 matches remaining
8. Orlando, 34 points, 7 matches remaining
9. Toronto, 34 points, 8 matches remaining
10. Chicago, 33 points, 6 matches remaining
The first thing to note is that each of those teams has at least one game in hand on the Fire. New England and Toronto have two.
On top of that, the Fire only have two home games left, the fewest of that group. Montreal has five home games and only two on the road. New England and Orlando have four left at home, while Toronto has just three with five on the road.
In simpler terms, despite the Fire being just one point out of a playoff spot, the margin for error remains very thin. That’s why Fivethirtyeight.com is giving the Fire a 22 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Three wins out of four and still only a 22 percent chance? The Fire have been playing with their backs against the wall for weeks now.
“The spirit of that locker room now is starting to really, really believe in a comeback that we are chasing right now,” Fire coach Veljko Paunović said. “The chances are even now so we are going to keep working hard and grind the points we need to get to the playoffs.”
Based on current pace of the teams in the race, the playoff line figures to be somewhere around 44 points. Just to be borderline, the Fire need to get 11 points from the final six.
In order to get those points, the Fire’s two remaining home games, against playoff contenders Dallas and Toronto, become absolute must-wins. The Fire have won two straight at home, but have won fewer than half their home matches (seven out of 15 at home), so that’s no given.
Then there’s the tricky task of picking up five or six points from four road matches. That’s nothing easy for a team with one road win this season.
Still, belief remains.
“I think at the beginning of the season a lot of things didn’t go our way,” midfielder Brandt Bronico said. “Some things controllable, some things uncontrollable. Now we’ve accepted the fact that that’s happened. It’s our time. Things are turning around for the better. I think that so-called luck is on our side now.”