3 reasons why the Chicago Fire probably won't be in the playoffs

 
 
Updated 8/14/2018 5:22 PM
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  • The Chicago Fire's Drew Conner moves the ball past Carlos Rivas, left, during the first half of an MLS soccer game, Sunday, June 4, 2017, in Orlando, Fla.

    The Chicago Fire's Drew Conner moves the ball past Carlos Rivas, left, during the first half of an MLS soccer game, Sunday, June 4, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. Associated Press

The math is against the Chicago Fire.

The best math shows the Fire just 7 points out of an MLS playoff berth behind sixth-place Montreal, the Fire's opponent Saturday (6:30 p.m., ESPN+).

The worst math shows the Fire (6-14-5) in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. It accumulated 23 points through the first 25 games of this season. Doubling that total over the final nine games -- a record of 7-0-2, as improbable as that is for a team riding a seven-game losing streak -- still might not be enough to secure a playoff berth.

The sixth-place team in the East last season had 50 points.

Here are three reasons why the Fire has foundered this season:

Injuries

Nobody around the Fire likes to use it as an excuse, but the team has been hit hard by injuries.

The most devastating has been the loss of right back Matt Polster, whose play last year was a key ingredient in the team's third-place regular-season finish. Polster could miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, having played just 89 minutes.

Other key players also have missed time -- Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Luis Solignac. The team's injury list has typically gone 4-8 players deep.

Michael de Leeuw and Lemont native Djordje Mihailovic are just now working their way back from torn ACLs, but both suffered those injuries last season. The Fire had an entire off-season to account for their absence.

The injury situation was aggravated by …

A failure to develop young players

The injuries exposed the Fire's lack of depth, which was a function of the club's inability to develop its youngsters.

The Fire roster is stocked with a number of young players, whether they came to Chicago through the MLS SuperDraft or signed as homegrown talent. Only third-year left back-turned-center back Brandon Vincent has seen regular playing time. He hasn't played up to his 2017 level, when his forays up the left flank kept opposing defenses on their heels.

Others have had opportunities, as midfielder Brandt Bronico is having now. The 2017 third-round draft pick worked his way into the lineup and has stuck. He has started 10 games, played in 15.

From the 2018 draft, Mo Adams, Elliot Collier and Diego Campos shone at times but didn't stick in the starting 11. Jon Bakero, the Fire's top 2018 draft pick for whom the team traded up in the draft, barely saw the field before being traded to Toronto on July 20 for veteran Nicolas Hasler, now a starter.

Injuries have slowed homegrown players Mihailovic, Cary native Drew Conner, Hinsdale's Grant Lillard plus 2017 first-round draft pick Daniel Johnson this season. Conner has seen playing time lately and done well in center midfield, adding energy and tenacity.

The Fire technical staff insists it won't play anyone who isn't ready to compete at this level, but it had no choice in goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, who has struggled at times. Patrick McLain briefly replaced Sanchez until the injury bug also bit McLain, forcing Sanchez back into net.

Meanwhile, the Fire has allowed 49 goals this season, more than every team in MLS save Orlando City.

All of these players are 24 or younger.

Quiet transfer windows

With an opportunity during the summer of 2017 to revive a good team whose fortunes had sagged, the Fire held pat.

Over the winter the Fire did well to get midfielder Aleksandar Katai on loan. Katai had a torrid June and has 9 goals and 4 assists, but he has just 1 goal since the calendar turned to July. He was the only significant winter signing.

This summer's just-closed transfer window netted starters Raheem Edwards and Hasler in trades and center back Nicolas Del Grecco, 24, as an international signing. Del Grecco, however, was loaned last week to the Tulsa Roughnecks in the USL.

Meanwhile, the goalkeeper position has become a major concern over the past three seasons, and the Fire's long-term need for a central attacking midfielder remains unaddressed.

It all adds up to the Fire most likely missing the playoffs for the seventh time in the last nine seasons.

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