Fire entering final, critical stretch of season

Sunday’s game against Orlando City represents the beginning of an 11-match period that could end with the Fire reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

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Carlos Teran and the Fire host Orlando City on Sunday.

Carlos Teran and the Fire host Orlando City on Sunday.

Courtesy of the Fire

The Leagues Cup is in the past. Now it’s time for the Fire to pursue a different prize, and one that’s within their grasp.

Sunday’s match at Soldier Field against Orlando City (10-6-7, 37 points) comes following a 16-day break after the Fire’s elimination from the Leagues Cup.

The Orlando game represents the beginning of a 11-match stretch that could end with the Fire reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Their surge before the break pushed them into eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

“The training has been really sharp, and the guys have had a really excellent attitude, really good mentality and working extremely hard,” coach Frank Klopas said. “We understand the importance of every game now in the last 11 matches in the season as we are coming into the final phase of play.”

The Fire (8-7-8, 32 points) have a game in hand and are two points ahead of D.C. United, who are in the ninth and final playoff spot. They are three points ahead of 10th-place CF Montreal, with both having played 23 games.

If the Fire keep playing like they did before the Leagues Cup break, they have an excellent shot at making the MLS playoffs.

“The atmosphere on the team is always very high, and we are always motivated,” defender Carlos Teran said. “From the very first game we had a very clear objective, which is to give everything that we have in every game we play in. So, from the beginning of the season, that’s been our goal and we have given everything that we have on the field, and we continue to work hard.”

Earlier in the season, the Fire had to divide their attention between MLS play and either the Open Cup or the Leagues Cup. Now they can look at just their regular-season schedule and not worry about picking which competitions to prioritize.

Teran insisted the other tournaments weren’t distractions for the Fire. Regardless, only one competition remains.

“We participated in the tournaments, and we wanted all three tournaments to be one in which the Fire went far,” Teran said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, so now we have to focus on league play to get to the playoffs. We know that we have the ability to get to the playoffs, and we are focusing on this short-term objective.

“The locker room is motivated. The atmosphere is very high,” Teran added. “It did hurt us to be eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup and from Leagues Cup. But we are a team; we as players, we are a group that has a lot of personality. We are very motivated.”

Klopas would certainly appreciate hearing that as the Fire enter the defining stretch of 2023.

“Every match is going to be extremely difficult, and you know, the preparation for us is always the key, which will give us confidence against a very good Orlando team,” Klopas said.

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