Still streaking: Fire beat Dallas for fourth straight win

Still streaking: Fire beat Dallas for fourth straight win

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.

Back from Tulsa, Joey Calistri returns to Fire with more confidence

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Back from Tulsa, Joey Calistri returns to Fire with more confidence

While the Chicago Fire was having a breakout season in MLS, Joey Calistri was helping the Tulsa Roughnecks have a breakout season of their own in the USL.

Calistri, a homegrown midfielder from Deerfield who made 14 appearances as a rookie with the Fire last year, has been on loan with Tulsa since the start of the season and has helped the Roughnecks go from having the worst record in the league in 2016 to being in a playoff spot currently. Calistri made 16 appearances, 13 of which were starts, and totaled five goals and two assists.

The Fire recalled Calistri this week and he was back in training. The 23-year-old could be another attacking option off the bench for the Fire.

“I always knew that if I played well enough hopefully I would get a shot to come back, but they just called me up and said we’re flying you back so I didn’t ask so many questions,” Calistri said on Tuesday.

Calistri racked up 1,235 minutes, which is nearly four times the total he got with the Fire last season (348). He was a regular starter while primarily playing as an attacker on the right side.

“I was able to get consistent 90 minutes every week, which is huge for fitness, for confidence, for everything and getting a couple goals out there helps the confidence,” Calistri said.

The Northwestern product said rosters aren’t as deep in the USL, but praised the level of play overall. He noted that the intensity is high because the players are trying to earn a spot in MLS.

On top of getting a confidence boost and gaining experience, Calistri said he was trying to work on his play near the goal.

“The thing I wanted to improve was creating goals and creating chances for other guys,” Calistri said. “I think my distribution was something that got a lot better out there and I was able to calm down more in the final third, find the final pass and do a lot better with that.”

Now that he’s back with the Fire, Calistri is hoping to make a bigger impact than he did last year. Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez noted in May how important it was for Calistri to get more playing time.

“I think this extended playing time has been very good for him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s proven to be what he was in our academy and what he was at Northwestern, which is a guy who finds a way to score goals and menace defenses.”

Calistri doesn’t know what his role will be with the Fire this year. He said coach Veljko Paunovic hasn’t communicated any specifics yet. Calistri doesn’t even know if the Fire intend to keep him around all year or send him back to Tulsa at some point.

One thing he does know about the Fire is that the team is very different from a year ago. Calistri was able to watch every game the Fire played and noticed the changes within the team.

“The thing I noticed was how calm we were on the ball,” he said. “I think that was probably the biggest difference I noticed. When we knocked the ball around the back there was a purpose and there was an identity to who we were. We didn’t just pass the ball around because we didn’t have options. We did that to stretch the other team out and then from then we were able to find pockets and little spaces behind.”

As Calistri came back from loan, defender Patrick Doody went on loan to Saint Louis FC, the Fire's previous USL affiliate. Doody, another homegrown player, has played there on loan each of the past two years. Doody hasn’t made an appearance for the Fire since his rookie year in 2015.

Why the next two weeks are crucial in MLS' Eastern Conference race

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USA TODAY

Why the next two weeks are crucial in MLS' Eastern Conference race

As Major League Soccer teams return from the Gold Cup break this week, the Chicago Fire are tied for the best record in the league.

The Fire’s 11-3-5 record, good for 38 points, has virtually assured the team of a playoff spot with nearly half the season still to play. Sports Club Stats has MLS playoff odds, which give the Fire and Toronto FC both a 99.9 percent chance of making the postseason.

So if the Fire’s baseline goal of making the playoffs is a near certainty at this point, what’s next? The Fire will want to strive for a first-round bye by getting one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference. The Fire and Toronto are currently five points ahead of third-place New York City FC. Those two teams play tonight in The Bronx before the Fire head to Yankee Stadium to take on NYCFC on Saturday.

“We have to see how they play, obviously against Toronto, another direct opponent in our quest for the top of our conference,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said on Tuesday. “We’ll see how they do, how they’re going to play. We’ll see also what lineup they will play and that’s a good opportunity for us. We also know that that result is going to impact for sure their approach against us on Saturday.”

NYCFC could either fall out of the race or jump right into the thick of it in the next two weeks. Even after hosting both Toronto and the Fire in a four-day span, the David Villa-led team heads to Canada for another meeting with Toronto FC on July 30.

A look at the remaining schedule for the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings shows the Fire may have the toughest road ahead. The table below shows how many games each team has at home and away as well as total games vs. teams currently in playoff spots and away games against those current playoff teams.

  Home games Away games Playoff teams At playoff teams
Fire 7 8 7 5
Toronto 8 7 6 3
NYCFC 8 7 8 2

The Fire have one fewer home game than Toronto and New York, but the real difference is in those away playoff games. The Fire have five such contests remaining (at NYCFC, at West-leading Sporting Kansas City, at Columbus, at San Jose and the season finale at Houston) and are 0-2-3 in those games so far this year.

Toronto has trips to Yankee Stadium and Toyota Park still on its schedule, but only one other road game against a playoff team. That's in Atlanta, the team that sits in fourth in the conference. TFC's disadvantage is that the Reds will be without Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley presumably for both of the key meetings with NYCFC while those two are competing in the Gold Cup knockout stage.

New York has two meetings, both one home and away, against the Fire and Toronto. In addition, NYCFC hosts three of the Western Conference's best teams in Sporting KC, Portland and Houston in September. With ground to make up in the standings, David Villa and Co. will need to do well in those games against the Fire and Toronto to fight for a first-round playoff bye and perhaps a long-shot run at the Supporters' Shield.

Regardless of what lies further ahead, the next two weeks should go a long way to shaping the race at the top of the Eastern Conference when the final stretch of the season approaches.