The Fire’s season will end on Sunday regardless if they win, lose or draw on the road against Toronto FC.
Another campaign – like six of the past seven – will end without a postseason appearance. Regardless of the the result, the season will draw to a close without many of the optimistic aspirations of first-year general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic being fulfilled.
But even since the Fire’s flickering playoff hopes were extinguished several weeks ago, Paunovic has refused to consider the remainder of the regular season a lost cause. It’s the same approach he carries into Sunday’s finale against a Toronto side that currently sits as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and that could see their playoff standing vastly improve with a victory.
But rather than considering his team a spoiler, Paunovic will look for a silver lining that emerge with either a victory or a strong showing.
“For us, we have to understand this game as our final, which it is – it’s a final,” Paunovic said Wednesday. “It’s an opportunity to just get a little bit better. But more than that for me on a long-term (basis), it’s important that we show to ourselves and show everyone that we are capable of achieving our small goals.”
The Fire have dropped both of their games against Toronto this season, both in one-goal decisions. The club’s disappointment aside, a victory Sunday would provide the Fire (7-16-10) with their first two-game winning streak of the season and could prevent them from finishing behind the Houston Dynamo as Major League Soccer’s poorest-performing team.
Yet, at the end of a season when Paunovic and Rodriguez have continually pleaded for patience from a frustrated fan base, Paunovic a strong performance in Toronto could propel the Fire toward future success. For weeks now, Paunovic has stressed the need of forging a proper competitive mentality to his players and has asked that they resist the temptation of lessening their effort with so little left to play for.
Competing in an otherwise meaningless finale may prove to be the proof of whether his players have taken hold of their coach’s message.
“(Players) have one more game left,” said Paunovic, who said Wednesday he will carry a mostly healthy roster into Toronto on Sunday. “What is behind we cannot change, but we can act in the present moment.”
And for a team that has struggled to once again turn the page on a disappointing past in a season marred by injuries to key players as well as steadily adding new talent, Paunovic insists finishing the year on a high note will be a step toward beginning to change the course of the future.
But Paunovic said everything hinges on how his players respond to their final challenge.
“We have to be professional until the end,” Paunovic said. “But more than that, we have to be the best we can be in every opportunity this is granted to us.
“(This game) is an opportunity to put in place something that will give us, in the long-term, the reward we are looking for, which is being successful in the league.”
Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_.