Preview: Chicago Fire vs. Chivas USA

The MLS playoff picture may be muddled heading into the final weekend, but the Chicago Fire can book their fifth consecutive trip to the postseason by winning, tying or waiting. Honoring former captain Chris Armas could help them gain some inspiration.

The Fire will try to solve CD Chivas USA‘s stingy defensive play Thursday night when the teams meet at Toyota Park.

Chicago (10-7-12) needs a win or a tie to gain a berth in the MLS Cup playoffs as the second seed in the Eastern Conference. A loss Thursday would put the club in danger of missing the postseason for only the second time in its history, as six other clubs are also vying for the final three playoff spots.

The Fire could have clinched a trip to the playoffs with a win Saturday, but played to a scoreless tie at New England – one of the other teams still alive in the race. That draw is part of an 0-2-4 stretch that turned Chicago from Supporters’ Shield contender into potential playoff absentee.

“These games are never easy,” coach Denis Hamlett said. “There’s a lot of pressure on both teams trying to get in the playoffs, and it makes for good games.”

A ceremony honoring Armas’ storied career could help Hamlett’s team gain a mental edge.

The midfielder will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Fire, joining former teammates Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik and Frank Klopas, coach Bob Bradley and general manager Peter Wilt. Only Klopas is still with the organization as technical director.

Armas helped the Fire win the 1998 MLS Cup, four U.S. Open Cup titles and the 2003 Supporters’ Shield, while ranking second in franchise history in assists (42) and third in games played (214). He also had two goals in 66 games with the U.S. national team.

The Fire could also get a boost from having Cuauhtemoc Blanco back in the lineup. The playmaker played 22 minutes as a substitute against the Revolution after helping Mexico qualify for next summer’s World Cup earlier in the week.

Blanco has five goals and a team-leading eight assists, but has managed just one of each over his last seven games. He hit the back of the net twice in a 3-2 win over Chivas USA (13-9-6) on May 28.

The Fire are 4-4-1 all-time against Chivas, splitting four home meetings.

Chivas USA has already clinched a playoff spot, and is tied with Houston and Los Angeles for first in the West while holding a game in hand. The club has also played one less contest than league-leading Columbus, which it trails by four points in the race for the Shield.

Chivas hosts the Dynamo on Sunday to conclude the regular season.

Chivas USA failed to gain sole possession of the conference lead Saturday, but extended its unbeaten streak to six games (3-0-3) by tying last-place San Jose 2-all at home.

The club is riding strong defensive play anchored by goalkeeper Zach Thornton, a possible contender for league MVP and Goalkeeper of the Year honors.

Thornton, a member of the Fire from 1998-2006, is 12-7-6 and leads MLS with a 0.78 goals-against average and 12 shutouts – both career bests.

Chivas has had to rely on the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Thornton since it hasn’t managed to score more than two goals in any game this season.

The club will also be without defensive midfielder Jess Marsch, who played in Chicago from 1998-2005, after he was injured in practice earlier this week.