Positive start has put Fire in unfamiliar territory

Positive start has put Fire in unfamiliar territory

The Major League Soccer season isn't a quarter of the way through yet, but early results have the Chicago Fire in contention for a playoff spot.

After going 2-0-1 in a three-game homestand, the Fire have 11 points through six games. That's good for third place in the Eastern Conference.

Plenty can and will change during the 34-game regular season. Seattle was 6-12-2 last season before storming back in the second half of the season and then remaining hot in the playoffs. Still, the Fire had only four points at this stage last season and didn’t reach 11 points until the 12th game of the season.

"We're in good form right now," defender Michael Harrington said. "We're confident. Obviously we're sitting good in the table and that just speaks to the guys who have been on the field doing the business. This is a different team than last year. It's a completely different team so we don't really look at the past results. We look to right now and the way that we're playing."

Four playoff teams from last year, D.C., Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia, are currently out of the top six in the conference. That probably won't last, but it shows how open the race could be. Toronto (1-1-4, 7 points) and Montreal (1-2-3, 6 points) each have played just two of their six matches at home so there is some reason to expect a quick turnaround once that balances out. Meanwhile, Philadelphia (0-4-2, 2 points) is winless and already has some ground to make up.

On the flip side, the Fire are not the only upstart team. Columbus (4-2-1, 13 points) is looking more like the 2015 version that hosted MLS Cup than the 2016 version which missed the playoffs. Expansion team Atlanta (2-2-2, 8 points) has had a solid start despite playing four of its six matches on the road.

With the way MLS goes, the playoff race won't be much clearer until the final few weeks of the season. It does appear, though, that the Fire will be a part of it.

"I think that we can feel and see the confidence all around the team, but we also have to know that we haven't done anything yet," coach Veljko Paunovic said. "It's just started."

The Fire didn't win consecutive MLS games in Paunovic's first year, but have already done so in 2017. Paunovic noticed the difference from a year ago after reflecting upon the 3-0 win against New England last weekend.

"For me it was the first game that I walking in that tunnel after the game and felt 'Wow, we were a great team today,'" Paunovic said on Tuesday. "That's the first time I felt like that, but I still think we can do way better."

If the Fire can continue to play well on this upcoming three-match road trip, it will be a solid statement that the Fire are going to stay in the playoff spots. Toronto hosted MLS Cup last year and still has much of the same talent on the roster. Trips to the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy, both teams that have made the playoffs every year since 2010, follow.

"We need to enjoy these games I think if we want to compete and if we want to be better," forward Nemanja Nikolic said. "Of course this is a new team with new players and the most important thing was to find our style, our identity, what we want to play. I think we can say that we are OK, we are on the beginning of our way.

"Of course with the goals, with the good results, the players are more relaxed on the pitch. These kind of things have led to really good things."

Notes from the rewatch: A deeper look at David Accam's big game

Notes from the rewatch: A deeper look at David Accam's big game

It's not often that teams win games in MLS by four goals, especially when a red card wasn't involved.

After the Chicago Fire couldn't score one goal against Orlando when the Lions went down to nine men for more than a quarter of the match earlier this month, the Fire put up a four spot against Orlando at Toyota Park on Saturday. The Fire were dominant in every aspect of the game.

David Accam had one of his best games for the Fire and the team had arguably its best performance of the season.

It takes two for a blowout in MLS

There have been 10 games in MLS this season decided by four goals or more. Out of that group, two of those involved red cards (including the Fire's 4-0 loss at Atlanta in March) and two of those were Minnesota's first two games as an MLS team when it was thought they could be the worst team in league history. Blowouts happen in MLS, but the relatively balanced play in the league means both the winning team had to be very good and the losing team had to be very bad.

The Fire may have had its best performance of the season. Nemanja Nikolic said the team was near perfect after the match (in the video above).

Meanwhile, Orlando was without its leading scorer (Cyle Larin) and was coming off a game Wednesday halfway across the country in Seattle. Those factors, plus an overall lethargic showing from Orlando (coach Jason Kreis said his team "didn't have enough energy" at the start of the match) made the Lions susceptible to the beatdown they received.

The expected goals didn't lie

Soccer analytics are still nascent, but expected goals is one of the stats getting more attention. Expected goals (click here for the longer, better explanation) track the position of all shots taken in a match and quantify the likelihood of that shot going in. Shots from close are more likely to score so they are worth more expected goals. Each shot's percentage of scoring is added to produce the team's expected goals total.

Often in blowouts, the winning team's expected goals total is lower than the actual goal total because in order to score a large number of goals it probably took a couple low-percentage shots scoring. Teams don't typically create several high-percentage scoring chances in a match. It takes a screamer from distance or a goalkeeper flub to get a high goal total, and the expected goal total won't go up with that as a result.

However, the Fire's expected goal total from Saturday was actually above four. Including the penalty kick, the Fire's expected goal total finished at 4.26, one of the highest totals in the league this year. Meanwhile, Orlando had a miniscule .16 from three long-distance shots.

The Fire scored two goals early and kept creating chances. Nikolic was denied on a close-range volley in the first half and missed an open shot in the second half or else he could have scored more than the one goal.

Without going deeper into the stats, the takeaway is that this game was a blowout, was always going to be a blowout and didn't require particularly efficient finishing from the Fire to be a blowout.

Accam: "I thought I could do anything on the pitch"

Accam's hat trick got the headlines, but he also had an assist on Nikolic's goal. On the assist he showed something he hasn't done often. Look where Accam received the ball on that play:

This is Accam as a playmaking attacking midfielder for one play. He received the ball just past midfield off a turnover, but it wasn’t a classic counter. Orlando had five players behind the ball and he had two Fire players, Nikolic and Luis Solignac, in front of him. He turned, put a move on Antonio Nocerino to give himself the space to set up Nikolic, made the pass and Nikolic finished with his first touch.

Accam's first goal was about positioning. He found a way to get open in the six-yard box, and the backheel was just the exclamation mark to finish the play. His second goal was classic Accam getting behind a defense and being almost too patient to shoot before scoring into an open net.

He showed a little bit of everything Saturday.

Michael de Leeuw tracking Kaka

Just watch Michael de Leeuw, a natural forward, recognize Kaka running into open space and then cut him off and intercept a pass intended for the Brazilian.

Dax McCarty named to U.S. national team roster for Gold Cup

Dax McCarty named to U.S. national team roster for Gold Cup

After the Chicago Fire's 4-0 win against Orlando on Saturday, midfielder Dax McCarty said his goodbyes to his teammates and got an extra handshake and a good luck message from coach Veljko Paunovic.

That's because McCarty was preparing to leave the Fire to join the U.S. national team for the upcoming Gold Cup, CONCACAF's regional tournament. McCarty was named to the 23-man roster that will take place in the tournament, which runs from July 7-26.

The U.S. will play against Ghana on July 1 in a tune-up. Fire winger David Accam will be a part of that Ghana team and is also away from the Fire. McCarty and Accam will both miss the U.S. Open Cup game in Cincinnati on Wednesday and the MLS game against Vancouver the same day as that friendly.

MLS is taking a break during Gold Cup group play, but will resume as the knockout round begins. If the U.S. gets to the semifinals, McCarty would miss three MLS games (July 1 vs. Vancouver, July 5 at Portland and July 22 vs. New York City FC). He would also miss a potential Open Cup quarterfinal if the Fire beat FC Cincinnati.

McCarty has been called in regularly under coach Bruce Arena, but has only played in friendlies. With the Gold Cup drawing mostly from MLS players, with European-based players getting a break during the club offseason, McCarty could see more playing time.

Fire right back Matt Polster was also included on the preliminary roster, but was not on the final 23-man roster. Former Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson was also on the team.

Here is the full roster:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC)

DEFENDERS (8): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca, Mexico), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest, England), Matt Miazga (Chelsea, England), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna, Mexico), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

MIDFIELDERS (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana, Mexico), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana, Mexico), Dax McCarty (FIRE), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Kenny Saief (Gent, Belgium), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

FORWARDS (3): Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)