FC Cincinnati can clinch their first MLS Cup Playoffs berth in club history with a home win over the already-eliminated Chicago Fire on Saturday night and some help elsewhere around the league.
Cincinnati (11-8-13, 46 points) finished last in the Eastern Conference in their first three seasons in MLS, but they have been consistently improving in their first year under head coach Pat Noonan and sporting director Chris Albright.
The Orange and Blue are unbeaten in their last 11 games (4-0-7) following a 1-1 draw at the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday night.
They enter the weekend in fifth in the East and can clinch one of seven conference playoff spots if they win and any of Inter Miami, Columbus Crew or Orlando City drop points in their next games.
"I'm aware of the scenarios, or some of them," Noonan said. "I still said to the group, 'We step on the field and win, teams are still having to chase us, and every week that that happens, it's one less week that they can catch us.'"
The Fire (9-15-8, 35 points) began the season with big expectations in part because of the signing of Switzerland international and former Liverpool star Xherdan Shaqiri.
Where Chicago and Cincinnati differ most obviously, though, is that Saturday's hosts have received excellent seasons from multiple players. Cincy playmaker Luciano Acosta leads MLS with 18 assists, while Brandon Vazquez and Brenner have combined for 31 goals.
By contrast, Shaqiri has a respectable seven goals and 11 assists, but he's the team leader in both categories.
The 30-year-old Shaqiri also played twice for his country during the recently-concluded September international window. That might put him on a minutes limit Saturday, according to Fire manager Ezra Hendrickson.
But the Fire are still adamant about giving a good account of themselves rather than playing a provisional lineup to evaluate lesser-used players for next year. They will have to do it without starting goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina, though, after the 18-year-old was listed as out with a head injury.
"You're still evaluating players. But at the end of the day, we want to finish strong. We want to finish on a positive note," Hendrickson said. "We're going to put out the strongest team that we can as an organization, because I think we owe it to our fans and we owe it to our city, we owe it to our owner and we owe it to ourselves."
--Field Level Media