The Fire is excited now, and there’s good reason for it.
Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers at Toyota Park extended the Fire's unbeaten streak across all competitions to four matches, and the way the club did it led new leader Mike Magee to suggest "something like this can turn your season around."
With Magee and Bakary Soumare in the lineup the Fire’s a lot more fun to watch now, that’s for sure. The Fire (3-7-3) isn't all there yet, however.
Yes, the Fire finally earned a standings point against the Timbers, who had won the previous three meetings since coming into Major League Soccer in 2011. Remember, though, that Portland opened a 2-0 lead on the Fire even though four of its players were away on national team duty. It wasn’t the real Timbers’ squad that took the field in Bridgeview on Saturday, but that team’s franchise record unbeaten streak still grew to 12 matches (5-0-7) and the Timbers remained the only MLS club that’s unbeaten on the road (2-0-6) this season.
That’s all part of the story of Saturday’s match – the second of a four-game home stand for the Fire. Next up is the Columbus Crew on Wednesday -- a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matchup.
Also significant is the Fire’s behind-the-eight-ball status in MLS. The Fire is still in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, 10 points behind fifth place Sporting Kansas City, which holds the last playoff spot. Draws at home won’t do much as far as climbing up the standings is concerned.
Still, 21 matches remain in the MLS regular season. Sixty-three points are still available and the Fire is making progress, but the additions of Magee and Soumare might not be enough. Coach Frank Klopas realizes that.
"The two moves that we made (via trades), you can see the big difference on the field already," said Klopas. "We’re not that far off. I do feel we need to add a couple more pieces."
Those "pieces" figure to come next month. For now, at least, the Fire has stabilized its back line with Soumare and found a true leader and goal-scorer in Magee, who has a goal in each of the first three games that he’s played.
That’a a streak worthy of a check of the club record books. Diego Chavez was the first Fire player to score in his first three regular season games at the start of the 2011 season. Magee’s streak -- from one Open Cup match and two MLS games -- is still alive.
"He’s a winner," declared Patrick Nyarko, back at his outside midfield spot since Magee’s arrival. "He came from a winning team (the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy). He finds ways to win. He wants to win. That’s the kind of guy he is."
Not only did Magee score the first Fire goal, he orchestrated the emotional comeback after Diego Valeri and Ben Zemanski scored for Portland in the 33rd and 58th minutes, respectively.
"I lost my mind, I’ll admit it,’’ said Magee. "I was having a hard time getting the ball. I apologized to the ref, like, four times. I didn’t mean to yell at him. I was just yelling, showing emotion and trying to light a fire under whoever was looking. Everyone was fighting and battling.’’
Fire players didn’t always listen to Magee, though, and that was in one instance a good thing. He wanted to take a free kick from 25 yards in the 81st minute but Daniel -- the club’s leading scorer but a reserve in this match –- waved him off.
"I walked up to it, because that’s the spot where I practice the most," said Paladini. "I told him that he could have the assist. When he backed up he told me to hit it."
Paladini blasted the ball away from goalkeeper Milos Kocic and into the net to tie the match.
"It’s one of those things where you have to be ready when your name’s called up. You either shy way from it or you step up to the plate," said Paladini.
Paladini wasn’t the only player to help off the bench. Klopas went offensive in his changes, bringing in two strikers in addition to Paladini. Maicon Santos and Sherjill MacDonald, who had divided time at striker most of the season, entered the match after the one-hour mark. Santos replaced Chris Rolfe, Paladini took Jeff Larentowicz’ place and MacDonald came in for Dilly Duka.
Pulling Larentowicz was eye-catching, because he had been wearing the captain’s armband in place of the injured Logan Pause (groin). When Larentowicz left the pitch the armband went to –- who else? –- Magee.
The result was that the second 45 minutes produced the best half of soccer the Fire has played this season.
"The way we came out, it was just a different team," Klopas said.
A draw isn't as good as a win, but Magee found it satisfying.
"This was the best-feeling tie I’ve had in a long time, which is kind of crazy to say -– getting a tie at home,’’ he said. "For some reason it just feels good, the way we fought and responded after being down 2-0."
There were plenty of side issues to the Fire’s performance in this one, not the least of which was the play of Alex. The Brazilian midfielder, making his second straight start, played his best match since coming to Chicago midway through last season as insurance for the pending departure of Sebastian Grazzini.
Grazzini wound up leaving, and Alex was only mediocre in the playing opportunities he was given. On Saturday, though, Klopas described Alex’s play as "fantastic." It’ll be tough to get him out of the first 11 now.