Philadelphia, PA – The Chicago Fire began the 2013 season about as poorly as possible, going winless in the opening month of the season. They did not secure their first three points until a 3-1 victory over the New York Red Bulls on April 7.
Injuries to midfielder Logan Pause and defender Arne Friedrich, as well as a lack of offensive production from forwards Patrick Nyarko and Sherjill MacDonald kept the Fire struggling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference through April, and after two months of the season, Chicago found itself with only two wins.
The Fire opened the month of May with back-to-back 1-0 losses to the Philadelphia Union, and although it was still very early in the campaign, things seemed bleak for Frank Klopas' side.
Rarely does an in-season personnel move transform a season, but that's exactly what happened on May 24 when the Fire acquired Mike Magee from the Los Angeles Galaxy in exchange for the rights to Robbie Rogers.
Magee had scored six goals for the Galaxy before coming to his hometown club, and made an immediate impact. Since his arrival, Chicago has won seven of its 11 matches.
He has scored eight goals since joining the Fire, including the game-winner 15 minutes from time on Saturday to give his team a crucial 2-1 victory over Philadelphia at PPL Park.
Nyarko put the Fire ahead after nine minutes, but the goal was canceled out by a Sheanon Williams tally on the hour mark to put the sides level with everything to play for in the final quarter hour.
But the Fire went back in front when Nyarko took the ball away from Philadelphia's Leo Fernandes in midfield and sent a cutting pass to Magee on the left side of the box. Magee took a quick touch and smashed it into the roof of the net, leaving Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath with no chance for a save.
The result moved the Fire to 28 points, only five behind the Houston Dynamo for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference - a position that seemed highly unlikely just over two months ago.
The goal gave Magee a league-best 14 tallies this season, but he insisted his focus is on winning, not just scoring goals.
"To be honest my mindset is just to always try to get wins," he said following Saturday's win. "We are on the outside looking in at the playoffs and that is the only goal. The best part about tonight is getting three points."
Klopas was reluctant to pin all of the Fire's recent success on the boots of one player, but recognized how having a consistent offensive threat can improve a team.
"We knew he was a quality player but you see a night like tonight, and that is what a forward has to do. He gets that opportunity, is very composed, he waits for the keeper to go so it was just a class goal. Patrick (Nyarko) made a great pass, but when you get him in spots in front of the goal it is just very good. He has been huge for us, but I think more than anything it has been the whole team that contributes and it is all about the team, the mentality is good, everybody is putting everything forward for the success of the team and I think that is what it is all about."
Chicago will next face the Montreal Impact on Aug. 10, and while it is currently on the outside looking in, a victory against the Impact will pull the Fire even closer to a second consecutive playoff berth.
"It is exciting. It is going to come down to the end; there is so much parity in the league. I think it is going to be exciting; I think there is going to be a fight all the way until the end and I think you couldn't ask for anything else," Klopas said of the playoff chase.
The Fire still have some work to do to reach the postseason, but this is a very different team than the side that struggled so mightily early in the season.
And if they find themselves in the top five in the East in October, it will largely be thanks to Magee, who should be your MLS MVP for 2013.