What Saturday's win against Vancouver showed about the Fire

What Saturday's win against Vancouver showed about the Fire

The long faces from a few days before were gone. The Chicago Fire got back to business Saturday and showed they are capable of recovering from a setback.

Three days before Saturday’s match against Vancouver, the Fire took a loss for the first time in nearly two months and went all the way to penalty kicks while playing on turf.

Playing on short rest without two regular starters (David Accam and Dax McCarty) and coming off a long game on turf, the Fire picked up another home win and prevented a downward spiral.

It is fitting that the same day that the Fire showed this resilience in the form of a 4-0 win the team moved into the Supporters’ Shield lead after Toronto lost at Dallas.

“I think we shifted very well from the loss that we had,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “For us, it was very important to see it, that it’s possible to recover after 120 minutes and in just a couple of days be ready to perform like we performed today. Fantastic performance, fantastic mood. The mentality was great. That’s how the great teams play, but we still have to work a lot to be a great team.”

Last year, Paunovic would talk about how he believed better things were to come. Now he is trying to keep his team grounded. The Fire haven’t won anything yet this season, although a playoff berth seems nearly certain.

At the start of the season, most Fire fans would have been relatively satisfied with just making the playoffs to break the five-year drought. Hopes and expectations are higher now.

“I’m going to be the party breaker now and I want to stop the euphoria because I think it’s important to know that we still haven’t done anything,” Paunovic said. “It’s great to hear that our stats are improving... but we have to know that this is still half of the season, a long way to go.”

Throughout an MLS schedule there are plenty of games that can be explained with an asterisk of external factors altering a result. That could be a key player out of the lineup for injury, suspension or international duty. It could be short rest with cross-country travel. The Fire had all of that going against them on Saturday and beat a respectable Vancouver team by four goals and led by three goals inside 25 minutes.

“The main focus (Saturday) was just to make sure that we didn’t have any excuses in terms of playing a game Wednesday and going 120 minutes,” said midfielder Arturo Alvarez, who scored the third goal of the match. “It’s part of the profession. We got to make sure that we prepare ourselves for this game.”

The Fire now enter into what could be the toughest stretch of games on the entire schedule. Next is another midweek game at Portland with McCarty still with the national team and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s availability in question after he left Saturday’s game in the first half with an injury. Accam could return from playing with Ghana, but he sat out the last two games the Fire played on turf.

After that, the Fire will go on break while the Gold Cup begins and return with back-to-back road games at New York City FC, which has the third-best record in MLS, and Sporting Kansas City, which leads the Western Conference. Counting Portland, those three teams have a combined two losses in 27 home games this season.

Those games will be tough, but even if the Fire struggle in the rest of July, the team showed against Vancouver that it can respond well to adversity.

“That’s big, the reaction,” forward Michael de Leeuw said. “Because you know in the back of your head you know you played 120 minutes. You lost on penalties, that’s also mentally (tough). If you see how quick we scored the goals and we ended their chance to win because we were so dominant on the field. We were winning duels, creating a lot of chances. I think they also thought like OK, they played Wednesday 120 minutes and right away we killed them. That was a good feeling for us.”

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

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USA TODAY

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.