Michael de Leeuw got the elephant off his back

Michael de Leeuw got the elephant off his back

This season, Michael de Leeuw had been forced to earn credit for doing the dirty work because he didn’t have any goals to show for his play.

On Saturday that finally changed. The Chicago Fire forward scored his first goal of the season in a 4-0 win against Vancouver to end a drought that lasted through the first half of the regular season.

“Finally, you know?” de Leeuw said. “The monkey is finally off my back, but I think it was an elephant. I’m happy with my goal, but also with the points. It’s for me also good that I scored, but I think the most important thing was that we killed the game really soon.”

De Leeuw’s goal was the fourth in a comprehensive win. The Fire now have the best record in Major League Soccer following Toronto’s 3-1 loss at Dallas.

De Leeuw scored seven goals in 18 games last year on a bad Fire team, but moved to a different role this year to accommodate the league’s leading scorer, Nemanja Nikolic. He maintained a regular spot in the lineup due to his work rate and ability to have a positive influence on the game without scoring.

“So happy for him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We were talking about that for a long time now, how important his work for the team and how important his assists are for the team.”

De Leeuw, who was named the man of the match, assisted Nemanja Nikolic for the second goal of the match. That was de Leeuw’s fifth assist of the season.

In the second half, he had a pair of golden opportunities where it seemed certain that he would score. De Leeuw chipped goalkeeper David Ousted after an errant clearance, but a defender headed the ball off the line. Later, he missed an open shot in the box.

“I had some chances,” de Leeuw said. “One ball was headed out of the line. Also one chance that has to be a goal.

“I was feeling it today. Then at the end it’s good that you score a goal. Sometimes you just need that goal to open your tab, open your account and let’s hope that it keeps flowing now.”

Finally, de Leeuw scored on a give-and-go with Nikolic in the 84th minute. He took the shot with his first touch and slid it past Ousted.

He was mobbed by his teammates, who were clearly aware of de Leeuw finally getting a goal.

“That felt great, the support” he said. “I felt the guys were also feeling it, that I needed a goal. I felt the love from the guys and that’s great.”

Everything feels good when a team is winning, but this one had a little extra meaning to de Leeuw and his teammates.

“I think we’re all excited,” defender Matt Polster said. “He’s been working really hard. We need everyone scoring.”

Back from Tulsa, Joey Calistri returns to Fire with more confidence

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Back from Tulsa, Joey Calistri returns to Fire with more confidence

While the Chicago Fire was having a breakout season in MLS, Joey Calistri was helping the Tulsa Roughnecks have a breakout season of their own in the USL.

Calistri, a homegrown midfielder from Deerfield who made 14 appearances as a rookie with the Fire last year, has been on loan with Tulsa since the start of the season and has helped the Roughnecks go from having the worst record in the league in 2016 to being in a playoff spot currently. Calistri made 16 appearances, 13 of which were starts, and totaled five goals and two assists.

The Fire recalled Calistri this week and he was back in training. The 23-year-old could be another attacking option off the bench for the Fire.

“I always knew that if I played well enough hopefully I would get a shot to come back, but they just called me up and said we’re flying you back so I didn’t ask so many questions,” Calistri said on Tuesday.

Calistri racked up 1,235 minutes, which is nearly four times the total he got with the Fire last season (348). He was a regular starter while primarily playing as an attacker on the right side.

“I was able to get consistent 90 minutes every week, which is huge for fitness, for confidence, for everything and getting a couple goals out there helps the confidence,” Calistri said.

The Northwestern product said rosters aren’t as deep in the USL, but praised the level of play overall. He noted that the intensity is high because the players are trying to earn a spot in MLS.

On top of getting a confidence boost and gaining experience, Calistri said he was trying to work on his play near the goal.

“The thing I wanted to improve was creating goals and creating chances for other guys,” Calistri said. “I think my distribution was something that got a lot better out there and I was able to calm down more in the final third, find the final pass and do a lot better with that.”

Now that he’s back with the Fire, Calistri is hoping to make a bigger impact than he did last year. Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez noted in May how important it was for Calistri to get more playing time.

“I think this extended playing time has been very good for him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s proven to be what he was in our academy and what he was at Northwestern, which is a guy who finds a way to score goals and menace defenses.”

Calistri doesn’t know what his role will be with the Fire this year. He said coach Veljko Paunovic hasn’t communicated any specifics yet. Calistri doesn’t even know if the Fire intend to keep him around all year or send him back to Tulsa at some point.

One thing he does know about the Fire is that the team is very different from a year ago. Calistri was able to watch every game the Fire played and noticed the changes within the team.

“The thing I noticed was how calm we were on the ball,” he said. “I think that was probably the biggest difference I noticed. When we knocked the ball around the back there was a purpose and there was an identity to who we were. We didn’t just pass the ball around because we didn’t have options. We did that to stretch the other team out and then from then we were able to find pockets and little spaces behind.”

As Calistri came back from loan, defender Patrick Doody went on loan to Saint Louis FC, the Fire's previous USL affiliate. Doody, another homegrown player, has played there on loan each of the past two years. Doody hasn’t made an appearance for the Fire since his rookie year in 2015.

Why the next two weeks are crucial in MLS' Eastern Conference race

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USA TODAY

Why the next two weeks are crucial in MLS' Eastern Conference race

As Major League Soccer teams return from the Gold Cup break this week, the Chicago Fire are tied for the best record in the league.

The Fire’s 11-3-5 record, good for 38 points, has virtually assured the team of a playoff spot with nearly half the season still to play. Sports Club Stats has MLS playoff odds, which give the Fire and Toronto FC both a 99.9 percent chance of making the postseason.

So if the Fire’s baseline goal of making the playoffs is a near certainty at this point, what’s next? The Fire will want to strive for a first-round bye by getting one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference. The Fire and Toronto are currently five points ahead of third-place New York City FC. Those two teams play tonight in The Bronx before the Fire head to Yankee Stadium to take on NYCFC on Saturday.

“We have to see how they play, obviously against Toronto, another direct opponent in our quest for the top of our conference,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said on Tuesday. “We’ll see how they do, how they’re going to play. We’ll see also what lineup they will play and that’s a good opportunity for us. We also know that that result is going to impact for sure their approach against us on Saturday.”

NYCFC could either fall out of the race or jump right into the thick of it in the next two weeks. Even after hosting both Toronto and the Fire in a four-day span, the David Villa-led team heads to Canada for another meeting with Toronto FC on July 30.

A look at the remaining schedule for the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings shows the Fire may have the toughest road ahead. The table below shows how many games each team has at home and away as well as total games vs. teams currently in playoff spots and away games against those current playoff teams.

  Home games Away games Playoff teams At playoff teams
Fire 7 8 7 5
Toronto 8 7 6 3
NYCFC 8 7 8 2

The Fire have one fewer home game than Toronto and New York, but the real difference is in those away playoff games. The Fire have five such contests remaining (at NYCFC, at West-leading Sporting Kansas City, at Columbus, at San Jose and the season finale at Houston) and are 0-2-3 in those games so far this year.

Toronto has trips to Yankee Stadium and Toyota Park still on its schedule, but only one other road game against a playoff team. That's in Atlanta, the team that sits in fourth in the conference. TFC's disadvantage is that the Reds will be without Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley presumably for both of the key meetings with NYCFC while those two are competing in the Gold Cup knockout stage.

New York has two meetings, both one home and away, against the Fire and Toronto. In addition, NYCFC hosts three of the Western Conference's best teams in Sporting KC, Portland and Houston in September. With ground to make up in the standings, David Villa and Co. will need to do well in those games against the Fire and Toronto to fight for a first-round playoff bye and perhaps a long-shot run at the Supporters' Shield.

Regardless of what lies further ahead, the next two weeks should go a long way to shaping the race at the top of the Eastern Conference when the final stretch of the season approaches.