Pressure is beginning to mount on the Chicago Fire.
It's a byproduct of the team's early-season success and its recent struggles, five losses in the past six games.
That's why Saturday's match against bottom-feeding Minnesota United FC (7:30 p.m., CSN-Plus) at Toyota Park is so important. Debate whether it's a must-win game, but it's definitely a should-win game.
The Fire (12-8-5, 41 points) suffered its first home loss of the season on Saturday to first-place Toronto FC. Now come the Loons (6-14-4, 22 points), looking every bit like an expansion side, still winless on the road in MLS.
A great time to beat up on a bad team?
"No, it's actually the worst time," midfielder Dax McCarty said after training Tuesday. "We're not playing well, and they're going to come in here with even more confidence that they can get a result."
"They went to Seattle this past weekend and gave them a (heck) of a game (losing 2-1 on a last-minute penalty kick)," added goalkeeper Matt Lampson, also showing respect beyond Minnesota's record. "It's going to be really important for us to get 3 points so we're going to do everything we can."
Not that the Fire will be in danger of missing its first playoff bid since 2012 even if it loses. That would take an epic collapse, which doesn't seem possible for this group.
"Now it's a moment when we have to show character, and this team has character," midfielder and World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger said. "It's now in a moment where everyone has to step up and everyone has to do a little bit more."
"This is crunch time," McCarty added. "The season's getting down to the wire here."
The Fire again might have to play without three regular defenders due to leg injuries. Right back Matt Polster practiced for part of Tuesday's training session while left back Brandon Vincent worked on the side and center back Joao Meira worked with the training staff inside. Asked about playing Saturday, Polster gave the thumb's up sign and Vincent said he's "getting close."
Even without them the Fire is a long way from panic mode.
"Every team goes through situations and stages like this," coach Veljko Paunovic said, acknowledging the pressure of getting back to the playoffs. "We just have to stay confident, stay calm, keep working.
"I think the wins will come."
After seven mediocre-to-miserable seasons, fans can be forgiven for imagining what can go wrong in the final nine regular-season games.
"Maybe other people can lose the confidence in us, but we cannot lose it," Paunovic said.
• Twitter: @Orrin_Schwarz