What is the Fire's magic number?
Heading into the final third of the season, the Fire (10-7-5, 35 points) sits in fifth place, good for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and would open the playoffs against D.C. United if the regular season ended today.
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But it ends Oct. 27 vs. D.C. United, 12 games from now.
Still, it's never too early to wonder how many standings points the Fire will need to play its first playoff game since 2009. The team started thinking about it in the preseason and has an idea how many points per month it needs to clinch a playoff spot.
What's that final number? Nobody's telling.
"Nah, that's for inside the locker room," veteran defender Dan Gargan said with a wry smile. "But we're on our way, so it's good."
"We do have something that we talked about as a team," coach Frank Klopas added. "That's within the group to see if we can achieve that goal that we set. If we get to that goal, for sure we're in the playoffs."
So let's test our math skills and try to guess along with the Fire. New York clinched the last playoff spot in 2011 with 46 points. From where it sits now, the Fire needs just 11 of a possible 36 remaining points to get to 46. Not bad.
Meanwhile, Montreal trails the Fire in sixth place with 30 points, but seventh-place Columbus might be in better shape at 28 points because Montreal already has played 25 matches to the Crew's 20 (each team plays 34 matches this season). At its points per match rate, Columbus would finish with 48 points.
"All these points are important, and they're important for everybody," Gargan said.
So guessing along with the Fire, let's say the club would love to get to at least 50 points to secure a playoff berth.
And the Fire certainly can aim higher than fifth place. It is just 5 points behind conference leaders Houston and Sporting Kansas City. It's a wide-open race, which should make for an exciting final two months with some "playoff-type games" as Gargan said, especially since the Fire will see nobody but Eastern Conference rivals the rest of the way (except for a Sept. 8 friendly vs. Mexican side Santos Laguna at Toyota Park).
"Not only are we playing teams that are a 6-point swing, so to speak, in the point standings," Gargan said, "it's also teams that if we keep doing the right things we'll end up seeing in the playoffs. We also understand we're not here yet, and that's the most important thing to say about the playoffs is we're not here, and I don't think we're the team we want to be yet before the playoffs."
There are no sure things, of course, but the next two steps will be among the easiest the Fire takes the next couple of months. Next up is ninth-place Philadelphia (6 p.m. Sunday, Galavision) on the road, followed by eighth-place New England at home. The Fire would love to get at least 4 points (a tie and a win, respectively) from those two matches before they have to see United and Houston.
But we're looking too far ahead for Klopas, who assures us the team's concentration is fully on Philly.
"We just have to win our games, and the rest will take care of itself," forward Dominic Oduro added.
To the family of Columbus Crew midfielder Kirk Urso, a Lombard native who died of apparent natural causes Sunday morning in Columbus at age 22.
Follow Orrin's soccer reports on Twitter @orrinsoccer