The tough test the Chicago Fire was supposed to receive Thursday didn’t exactly materialize the way it looked on paper, but the Fire still picked up a fourth straight win.
The Fire were leading after a frantic first 10 minutes and rode out a subdued second half to pick up a 2-1 win against an FC Dallas team, which sat six players who have started a majority of the team’s matches.
Nemanja Nikolic scored his 11th goal of the season, adding to his league lead, and it took less than three minutes to get it. Nikolic redirected Brandon Vincent’s cross from the left into the far post for an early Fire lead.
Dallas (5-2-4, 19 points) responded in the sixth minute. Joao Meira scuffed a clearance and then Johan Kappelhof’s attempted clearance was blocked right into the path of Roland Lamah, who tapped the ball in.
The crazy start continued with David Accam cutting in on his right foot from the left wing and scoring with a shot from outside the box to give the Fire (7-3-3, 24 points) the lead again. The ball skipped under the arms of Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz. Accam became the first Fire player to score in five straight games.
After that wild start neither team managed a shot on target until Juninho fired a shot at Seitz in the 89th minute. Nikolic had a penalty kick saved in the final minute of added time.
“From what I’ve heard this team had a long way to go in the leadership and maturity department and that’s how you get results in MLS," midfielder Dax McCarty said. "It’s not about always skill, it’s not always about who’s got the best players. Sometimes it’s just about grinding it out. Sometimes it’s about being mature and being professional and seeing games out that aren’t easy to win and this is the toughest game in this stretch and that’s not an easy game to win.”
With another game against Houston on Sunday, Dallas manager Oscar Pareja elected to sit a number of regulars. Kellyn Acosta, Walker Zimmerman and leading goal-scorer Maxi Urruti are among Dallas’ best players and were not included in the Dallas matchday roster. Michael Barrios, Maynor Figueroa and Hernan Grana also have started a majority of Dallas’ matches this season and did not start on Thursday. Barrios did enter in the 74th minute.
Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said he expected some rotations in Dallas' lineup after looking at the team's schedule.
"Maybe not so many, but I think with so many rotations actually what they achieved is to be fresher than we were," Paunovic said. "That was very important after the first 30 minutes of the game when we obviously we dropped a little bit in our intensity, in our freshness. Then in that moment what stepped up was our character, managing the game, finishing the first half well, then adjusting.
“We were tested in a different way and we saw the different face of our team that is capable with these kind of situations.”
McCarty said even playing with a rotated lineup, Dallas is still a "well-coached, organized" team.
"It could be really easy for us to look at their lineup and say, 'Hey this is going to be an easy night,'" McCarty said. "I think we have the maturity now in this locker room that in reality when you play a team with players that haven’t played as much they’re going to be hungrier and it’s even going to be a harder game. So for me this was the hardest game we played in this four-game stretch by far."
In March, McCarty was talking about how the Fire had a long way to go. After this win, he said things are better, but there is still more improvement needed.
"I think the main difference that this team is playing with a lot of confidence," McCarty said. "I think what happens when you get a couple results in a row, the belief just grows even more. So now instead of thinking, 'Hey we might be able to make the playoffs,' the belief turns into, 'Hey, we might be able to do something special this year.' We might be able to start thinking about winning some trophies, being a championship team.
“This is the evolution of going from a bad team to becoming a great team. We’re not there yet, but we’re somewhere in the middle.”
The Fire now have the second-best record in MLS after finishing a stretch of four games in 13 days with a 4-0 record. It was the first time the Fire have won four games in a row since 2012. The Fire have not won five in a row since the league abandoned the old shootout and allowed ties.
Last year the Fire won seven matches. This team has done so in 13 games. The Fire also matched the best start in club history through 13 games, equaling 1998 and 2001.
The Fire next play June 4 at Orlando.