At the end of a season during which seemingly nothing came easy, the Chicago Fire gets a matchup that's as difficult as it could find.
The Fire ends the regular season knowing a victory at the first-place New York Red Bulls can clinch a playoff berth without any help, possibly moving the club as high as No. 3 in the Eastern Conference standings, an altitude the Fire hasn't seen yet this season.
Tie or lose, and the Fire will need help.
"It's exactly where I figured we'd be," said Fire forward Mike Magee, tied for the MLS scoring lead with Montreal's Marco Di Vaio at 20 goals. "When things started dwindling down we kind of realized we weren't making things easy on ourselves. To have to go to New York and get a win is kind of a fitting end to our season."
How about some useless trivia?
The Fire, which enters Sunday's game (4 p.m., Channel 50) on a three-game winning streak, hasn't won four straight this season.
"The mindset now is we have to win," Magee said. "I'm not one to root for other teams."
New York is undefeated in its last seven matches, losing just twice in its last 14. And the Red Bulls have incentive, wanting a win to clinch the Supporters' Shield, for the league's best regular-season record, which would be the club's first major trophy.
The Fire will be without central midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, who has been wearing the captain's armband most of the season. Alex or Logan Pause seem likely to start in place of the suspended Larentowicz.
"We've done well against New York in the past, it's a fun place to play, and the atmosphere is going to be great," Fire defender Austin Berry said. "It should be a fun game."
If by fun Berry means a nail-biter for Fire fans, he's probably right. But fans -- as well as players and coaches -- will know exactly what result the Fire needs by halftime in New York. The Fire and Red Bulls are the last Eastern Conference teams to play this weekend, so the Fire will know how its rivals fared.
"Of course we'd rather be in (already)," Magee said, "but I don't think too many people had us in this situation even a month ago, let alone three months ago. It's exciting. We'll definitely take it. To have our destiny in our control, you can't ask for anything better."
Worst-case scenario is the Fire draws or loses after New England and Houston win, leaving the Fire as the odd team out. That scenario could put some jobs in jeopardy, in the front office and in the locker room.
"That goes kind of hand-in-hand in the business," said Magee, whose job definitely seems secure after his league MVP-caliber season. "Earlier on in my career I was always worrying about all that stuff, and then I quickly realized there was no real rhyme or reason. If you lose guys leave, people get fired or traded.
"So long story short, we've got to win."
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