Chicago Fire

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."

Bastian Schweinsteiger on Fire's skid: 'We have to show character'

Bastian Schweinsteiger on Fire's skid: 'We have to show character'

Despite losing three in a row, five of six and coming off the first home loss of the season, the mood isn’t one of panic around the Chicago Fire.

The general tone coming out of interviews after practice on Tuesday was that the team simply needs to stay on course and the results will turn around naturally.

“In a way we have to forget about the games which we lost, but on the other way we have to learn (from) it, to play some certain moments in a game better,” midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “I think we had, even in these games, we had some good parts in the game. But at the end we lost and that’s not a good feeling.

“Now it’s the moment where we have to show character and this team has character.”

The Fire’s 11-match unbeaten run from May to early July propelled the team to the top of the MLS standings, but things have turned drastically in the other direction since. The current losing streak has seen the Fire fall to third in the Eastern Conference while Toronto and New York City FC have racked up points and earned some separation as the top two teams in the league.

Midfielder Dax McCarty said the Fire are somewhere in between their hot streak and the current slump.

“Just like we weren’t the best team in the league when we were 11 games unbeaten, we’re not the worst team right now,” McCarty said. “We’re in a rough spell. I think it was always realistic to think we were going to have a spell like this in the middle of the season. You get injuries, you get call ups to the national team. You get a break, break up your rhythm, and, guess what, I think we’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes this year and I think we’ve garnered a little bit more respect around the league and so teams are starting to play us a little bit differently. Teams are starting to be a little clever about how they play us and what they do against us and now it’s on us to adjust.”

The sentiment that every team in MLS goes through a slump at some point is mostly true. Toronto opened the season winning just one of its first six, with four ties during that stretch. NYCFC had a run of one win in five matches in the middle of the season. Seattle currently leads the Western Conference after starting 2-5-4.

The Fire are now one of 10 teams in MLS to go on a three-game losing streak at some point this year, but the context of the three losses should make it more palatable for Fire fans. The three games were in an eight-day period when the Fire endured injuries to two starting defenders (Matt Polster and Joao Meira), when one (Brandon Vincent) was already out. Two of the losses were on the road to playoff contenders and the third was at home to the league leaders.

Realistically, the Fire won’t be able to catch Toronto, which is nine points ahead, and catching NYCFC, five points above the Fire, won’t be easy with nine games remaining. On the upside, three of the next four games are at Toyota Park and five of the final nine are against teams out of the playoffs currently.

The schedule offers the Fire an opportunity to go on another run, or at least to right the ship after enduring a tough stretch.

“We certainly need to move on, but we also need to learn from the games that we’ve played, the mistakes that we’ve made because, you know, this is crunch time,” McCarty said. “The season is getting down to the wire here now and I don’t think anything is guaranteed. We’re certainly not guaranteed to be in the playoffs and these are crucial games for us coming up.”

Coach Veljko Paunovic believes the wins will come as long as the team remains confident.

“Maybe other people can lose confidence in us, but we cannot lose it,” Paunovic said. “I think we did so much so far and we have good reasons to believe in ourselves. We have a great team, experienced team, we have a lot of youth, we have good results, 41 points. We are still at the top of the standings with other teams obviously and we have to fight for the first place. Obviously our main goal remains playoffs so in the last nine games we have to do our best to first assure that we secure the playoffs and then obviously we will look at other goals.”

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

The Chicago Fire's unbeaten run at Toyota Park is now a thing of the past.

The Fire couldn't hold off league-leading Toronto FC and are now nine points below TFC in the standings. If the two teams are to meet in the playoffs, the Fire will have to improve on some things, but there were positives from the Fire's perspective.

Here's a look at some of the key match ups on the field from Saturday's 3-1 win for the Reds.

Jozy Altidore vs. Christian Dean

On the surface, Jozy Altidore had a quiet game for Toronto. He only had one shot and it was blocked.

However, Altidore put on a clinic on how a forward can be effective without being involved directly in scoring opportunities. His hold up and back-to-goal play were key to reliever pressure for Toronto and he allowed his teammates to play off of him.

Altidore’s ability to win aerial duels and 50-50 balls meant Toronto didn’t have to play out of the back if it didn’t want to. If the defense was under too much pressure, Toronto still had a good opportunity to keep the ball and have something positive happen with a decently directed clearance towards Altidore.

Beyond that, his back-to-the-goal play in and near the penalty box was killer. He was credited with three key passes, which was best on Toronto and only matched on the Fire by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Patrick Doody, and had three more passes that were either completed from or into the box.

Toronto is paying Altidore the big bucks to score goals and he didn't do that Saturday, but because the team is so deep, just giving other players on the team better chances can be good enough for TFC to win big games.

The Fire had to adjust to Altidore's presence and that was Christian Dean's assignment. The recently acquired defender is another big body like Altidore. There's a reason why all of the photos of Dean from the set of USA Today wire photos are with him within reach, or actually touching, Altidore. For the most part, Dean succeeded is keeping Altidore out of scoring chances, but Altidore still won most of the physical battles.

Drew Conner vs. Justin Morrow

Whether it was by design or whether it was just what was available, Drew Conner seemed to be a focal point of the Fire's attack for much of Saturday's match. Conner played right back with Matt Polster still out injured. It was a tough assignment for him as well, going up against Toronto's left wing back Justin Morrow, who was called into the U.S. national team during the team's victorious Gold Cup run.

Morrow has scored five goals this year and can be a dangerous part of the attack coming from overlapping positions. He wasn't a major factor on Saturday although he did have a few dangerous moments in the first half.

This may have been because Conner was so aggressive in the Fire's attack. He was dribbling at his defenders on a regular basis, though not always successfully. Conner was credited with nine crosses, three of which were completed.

The Fire's reliance on crosses continued with 26 attempted in the match to Toronto's 12. Consider those numbers with the fact that Toronto outshot the Fire 18-15.

Conner's aggression may have kept Morrow more honest defensively, but it didn't result in many chances for the Fire. A near post header from Michael de Leeuw in the 24th minute off a Conner cross was a good one, but de Leeuw wasn't able to put the header on target.

It's getting repetitive, but the Fire need to find ways to attack from central positions. That will help Nemanja Nikolic in his current goal drought and give defenses multiple things to worry about as opposed to just defending crosses all the time.

Schweinsteiger's 'I'm not in Europe anymore' moment

Watch big name stars with plenty of high-level experience in MLS and inevitably there will be a play every so often that said player will be frustrated by the lack of ability and/or understanding of his teammates. MLS isn't anywhere near as good as the best European leagues so these things happen when these star players are used to playing with the best of the best. Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry were among the most amusing in these instances.

Schweinsteiger had a play like that on Saturday that had to be shared. It isn't the harshest indictment of his teammate, in this case it's Conner, but it's still somewhat amusing.

Schweinsteiger is open in the middle of the field and puts his arms up to call for the ball and show that he's open. However, there's probably not a right back in MLS who can reliably make this pass with two players in between Conner and Schweinsteiger. To his credit, Conner kept pushing forward on the dribble and the Fire got into the attacking third anyway.

Either way, soak it in: a World Cup and Champions League winner calls for a ball in MLS and gets ignored.

It doesn't stop there. In the 71st minute there's a longer version of Schweinsteiger being wide open clapping for the ball. This goes on for several seconds (eight if you count).

The Fire were constantly attacking from wide areas. Here's a world class player wanting the ball in a central area and he's wide open. He probably should get the ball here. The resulting cross at the end of this gif is headed harmlessly away.

Feel free to add your own caption of what's going through Schweinsteiger's head here.