Solving a leaky defense may be what the Chicago Fire needed to return to the playoffs. A fortuitous goal also helped.
The Fire clinched their fifth consecutive playoff appearance in their season finale Thursday night, getting an own goal to beat CD Chivas USA 1-0 at a rainy Toyota Park.
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Heading into their finale, the Fire (11-7-12) were mired in an 0-4-2 stretch that saw them allow seven goals while getting shut out three times.
A renewed focus on defense helped boost Chicago while Chivas‘ Eduardo Lillingston did the Fire’s scoring after they were blanked in the last two games.
In the 68th minute, Lillingston headed Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s corner kick – Chicago’s 14th of the game – past goalkeeper Zach Thornton as the Fire went on to clinch the Eastern Conference’s second seed.
“It took us 30 games to get to this point, but we’re finally in the playoffs,” Fire coach Denis Hamlett said. “When we start to limit (an opponent’s) opportunities on goal, that’s when we become a very dangerous team. To be able to win championships, you have to have a good defensive mindset.
“It takes an own goal, but we’ll take it.”
The Fire’s playoff opponent is unknown as six teams are vying for the final two berths heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
“We’re in the playoffs. That’s all that matters,” Hamlett said when asked who he’d prefer to face in the postseason. “There are so many different teams, so I can’t sit here and tell you who.”
Chicago has been without its entire starting backline from its season opener. Wilman Conde (illness and hamstring) has missed the last two games, while Gonzalo Segares (knee) and Tim Ward (foot) have been out for over two months. All-Star Bakary Soumare was sold to France’s US Boulogne in August.
Losing those four has moved defenders C.J. Brown, Dasan Robinson and Brandon Prideaux into starting roles, while midfielder Mike Banner has replaced Segares at left back.
“The team has focused as a team to get around the ball,” Brown said. “Our back four has been pretty organized. I think the stretch before these last two games has been a meltdown. We just weren’t on the right page.”
Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch made two saves to get his 10th shutout and tie his career high set with Columbus in 2004.
Chivas‘ loss also allowed the defending MLS Cup champion Crew to clinch the Supporters’ Shield for having the best regular-season record.
“I thought 0-0 was probably a fair result,” Chivas coach Preki said. “Maybe they had a little bit more opportunities than us. I thought both teams would settle for a draw because it’s a rainy night and a heavy field. Not really good conditions for a game.”
Chivas has already clinched a playoff berth and is tied with Houston and Los Angeles atop the West while Seattle is one point back in fourth place.
Chivas (13-10-6) hosts the Dynamo on Sunday, a day after the Galaxy faces San Jose and the expansion Sounders meet Dallas.
“We need to take care of business and we haven’t,” Preki said. “We lost that chance, but hopefully we regain our form on Sunday and put ourselves in a good spot to get home-field advantage, at least in the first round.”