Through the first third of the Major League Soccer season -- when the Chicago Fire struggled to a disappointing 2-7-2 record -- the club kept reminding itself there was plenty of time left.
Through the second third of the season -- when the Fire turned things around for an impressive 7-3-2 record -- it again reminded itself there was time.
Entering the final third of the season, time's a'wasting. Here are three things that need to happen for the still seventh-place Fire to claim one of the top five spots in the Eastern Conference and earn a playoff berth:
1. DP stands for Designated Producer:
The Fire paid big money to bring Juan Luis Anangono and Arevalo Rios to Chicago. They don't have time for sightseeing.
Anangono, the Ecuadorean forward, needs to score. Five goals in those 11 remaining games seems reasonable. He is scoreless in his first two starts.
"He needs to be a little bit more selfish at times," said Kevin Egan, the team's color analyst on its Channel 50 local broadcasts.
Marco Di Vaio and Federico Higuain, both DPs, each scored a brace Saturday for Montreal and Columbus, respectively. LA DP Robbie Keane had a hat trick. Di Vaio has 13 goals this season. Keane has 10 goals and 9 assists in just 14 games played. Higuain has 9 and 6.
That's what DPs have to do.
Rios, the Uruguayan holding midfielder with the big-time resume, needs to help the Fire get and then keep possession of the soccer ball. The Fire possessed the ball a mere 42.7 percent of Saturday's game at New England. That's not good enough to win consistently.
The problem there, Egan said, is a communication gap with midfield partner Jeff Larentowicz. Rios doesn't speak English; Larentowicz doesn't speak Spanish.
"Center of midfield is a tricky position for a newcomer," Egan added.
2. Shut the door:
The Fire hasn't shut out an opponent since June 2, which makes the Fire's record over those two months even more impressive. But the defense can't sit back and let the attack carry the load. The defense needs to step up and shut some teams down. Soon. Very soon.
Oh yeah, one more thing. The Fire needs to shut down Sporting Kansas City on Friday night (7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network) without Bakary Soumare, the big center back who helped the Chicago side turn around its fortunes when he was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia in late May. He picked up a red card after Saturday's loss at New England and will be suspended Friday.
3. More than 21
Figuring a victory in each of the remaining five home games and a draw in each of the six remaining road games, a strong final third of the season would earn the Fire 21 points. Add that to the 31 points it now has, and the Fire finishes with 52. Columbus finished with 52 points last year and missed tying Houston for the final playoff spot by a point.
If the Fire wants to match 2012's 57 points, it needs to turn three of those draws into victories, an 8-1-2 record. First up: conference rivals Sporting Kansas City and Houston, both at Toyota Park.
"A lot is going to come down to these next two games," Egan said.
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