With eight points separating the top five teams in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Fire have a good chance to improve their spot in the standings with a pair of matchups this week against clubs outside the playoff picture.
The first of those meetings comes Wednesday night, when the Fire hit the road to take on a Toronto FC squad that owns the fewest points in MLS.
Chicago (13-8-5) is in fourth place in the East but sits six points behind conference-leading Sporting Kansas City and two back of second-place New York. The Fire lead Columbus, holding onto the fifth and final playoff spot, by two points and are three ahead of sixth-place D.C.
They haven't played a league match since beating third-place Houston 3-1 at home Sept. 2. Patrick Nyarko scored in the opening minute, Daniel Paladini had a goal in the 19th and Alex scored in second-half stoppage time to seal the win as Chicago improved to 4-1-1 in its last six matches.
"Last year it was a different situation, we were playing catch-up," coach Frank Klopas said. "Right now we're in a good spot; we're in a good spot because we don't have to rely on other teams. We have to worry about ourselves. We need to keep going and keep working hard because we can't get comfortable and relaxed."
Chicago has earned the maximum six points against Toronto (5-16-6) this season by winning 3-2 on the road April 21 and 2-1 at home Aug. 4. Nyarko and Dominic Oduro each have a goal and an assist in the series for the Fire, who are 3-0-2 in the last five meetings.
Toronto fell to 0-5-2 in its past seven games in its last MLS match, a 2-1 loss at Kansas City on Sept. 1. Ryan Johnson put Toronto up 1-0 in the 44th minute before the club allowed goals in the 61st and 87th.
Johnson, who missed a chance to make it 2-0 when his shot in the 49th minute hit the post, has scored three times in seven games - including in Chicago last month - after registering the same amount of goals in his first 19 matches.
"We tried to hit them on the break, which we did," coach Paul Mariner told MLS' official website. "Ryan Johnson hits the post and if it goes in it might be a different game. And then Luis Silva had a couple of great opportunities later on.
"It just wasn't to be. We put in another great shift and I firmly believe we're not very far away from turning the corner."
Chicago returns home to face expansion club Montreal on Saturday night. The Impact are in seventh place in the East, five points behind the Fire.
"We need to keep going and improving and working just as hard ... because everything we worked on up to this point can change very quickly," Klopas said.
- Toronto FC