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."

Dax McCarty ready to 'soak in the moment' in his return to Red Bull Arena

Dax McCarty ready to 'soak in the moment' in his return to Red Bull Arena

When Dax McCarty was traded from the New York Red Bulls to the Chicago Fire in January it was the third time in his 12-year MLS career that he had been traded, but this was the one that affected him the most.

McCarty had been with the Red Bulls for five and a half years, the longest he had been with any team, and leaving New York was not easy for him even though he had been traded before. So when McCarty's new team, the Fire, visit the Red Bulls on Saturday, it won't just be an ordinary game for the 29-year-old midfielder.

"I'd say the Red Bulls meant more to me than any other team that I've been on so far," McCarty said. "In that sense it will probably be a little bit different, but I think the key to just trying to make it as normal as possible is just to treat it like another game, treat it like another three points that you have to try to win against a good team on the road. I just want to make sure that the game doesn't become too big about my return."

When McCarty was traded he had just gotten married and was immediately after headed to training camp with the U.S. national team. He was initially vocal about his frustration in how the Red Bulls handled the trade, but soon after that he didn't want to talk about that aspect of the trade anymore.

With Saturday's match marking his return to Red Bull Arena, the focus shifts back to McCarty and the trade. Now, he wants to focus on the personal side of the trade, the people that are no longer an everyday part of his life. He mentioned security guards, chefs and maintenance crew among the people he will be happy to see again.

"I don't think I got to say a proper goodbye to a lot of the guys on the team and I don't think I got to say a proper goodbye to the fans and the way that they treated me when I was in New York so I'll soak in the environment, I'll soak in the moment," McCarty said. "Hopefully I don't get too many boos.

"Whether we win, lose or draw I want to take in the time after the game to make sure the Red Bull fans know how much they meant to me in my time there. I'll try to go around the stadium and whatever few fans stick around after the game I'll wave and say thank you for supporting me during my time there."

He said his former Red Bulls teammates are some of his best friends and he keeps in touch with many of them. Going up against them and heading to the other locker room will be different.

"Those are guys I went to battle with for a long time and those are guys that I'll probably be friends for life with some of them," McCarty said. "Certainly seeing them on the other side, it will be weird, but it's going to be an enjoyable moment I think. Once the 90 minutes hits and once we step on the field it's going to be a dog fight."

McCarty's two previous trades, from Dallas to D.C. via Portland's expansion draft pick after the 2010 season and from D.C. to the Red Bulls in June of 2011, were very different. After spending five years in Dallas, he was traded by D.C. United after less than half a season.

"I'd say the only time it really was kind of a little bit surreal and kind of emotional was when I went back to Dallas because I was in Dallas for a really long time," McCarty said. "That club meant a lot to me. I wasn't really in D.C. for very long and we played New York so much. It was weird because I got traded from D.C. to New York and I think we played them two or three games after the trade and it was in the middle of the season so that was kind of just a whirlwind.

"Going back to Dallas for the first time, being back in the stadium and seeing the fans and going into the visitors' locker room, all that stuff that comes with it is definitely strange.

Despite his experience with being traded and returning to a former team, McCarty is still expecting it to hit him on Saturday.

"I'll say it's definitely going to be a strange feeling."

Fire Talk Podcast: Dax McCarty returns to his old home

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Fire Talk Podcast: Dax McCarty returns to his old home

In this episode of the Fire Talk Podcast, Dan Santaromita and Shane Murray (MLSsoccer.com) recap the Fire's 3-1 loss at Toronto and look ahead to the game at the New York Red Bulls.

Dax McCarty, a former Red Bulls player, returns to his former home. Hear him talk about returning home in an interview after practice on Tuesday.

Also, Dan and Shane talk about the release of player salaries by the MLS Players Union and Bastian Schweinsteiger's visit to Fire Weekly.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: