Major League Soccer is very forgiving when it comes to the playoff race. Even now, with less than a month left in the season, every team is mathematically still alive.
However, the Chicago Fire are in last place in the league and are falling out of contact with the teams just above them in the standings. The Fire have 27 points and are five points behind the closest teams, Houston and Columbus, which have both won two games in a row.
With that in mind, coach Veljko Paunovic seems to have slightly changed his tone regarding the team and the season in general. After the 4-1 loss to New York City FC on Friday, Paunovic said the team “had a really bad game” defensively. He also talked about the Fire “coming back” next year, something he has previously avoided doing while keeping his focus squarely on the next game ahead.
Paunovic reiterated some of those thoughts in Monday’s conference call with media.
“Of course we are not happy with our defensive performance (in New York),” Paunovic said. “I think for us the maturity is still something we have to do. It’s our main task this year I think. I think in this game we conceded too many innocent mistakes and opportunities to our opponent who was very motivated.”
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The Fire set a club-record for consecutive minutes without conceding a goal earlier this season (411 minutes), but have given up 18 goals in the past eight MLS matches. The 18th goal the Fire allowed in MLS play came in the 14th match of the season. This is currently the worst defensive stretch, purely in goals allowed, of the season.
The rise in goals allowed has coincided with an improvement from the Fire’s attack. The Fire have scored in 10 straight matches, which is a notable accomplishment considering the team was shutout in four of its first 10 matches in 2016. Despite the offensive improvement, the defensive downturn is concerning for Paunovic.
“I think in some points of the season we were very strong,” Paunovic said of the Fire’s defense. “These last couple of games I’m not happy with the performance, but we are working on that to fix it.”
The Fire have five games left to “fix” these mistakes. The team is not realistically in the playoff race anymore and a tough pair of games are coming up. The Fire visit Seattle on Wednesday and will fly straight to Columbus for a game three days later. Both teams have won two straight and are surging towards the playoff race.
It won't be easy for the Fire to end the season with some positive results. Paunovic said part of his job is keeping the team motivated, but also said there is extra pressure that goes with being in last place in the standings.
“The team is fighting for not being last on the standings in the league,” Paunovic said. “That pressure sometimes is too big.
“We have to mature. Fortunately we had to commit too many mistakes to pay that price and I believe that the team is getting better, but we still have to work on that.”