Dax McCarty

With playoff spot nearly secure, 'now it’s about how good' Fire can be

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USA TODAY

With playoff spot nearly secure, 'now it’s about how good' Fire can be

Things have been on the upswing for the Fire for the past couple weeks, but the players recognize the sharpness of the team’s unbeaten run earlier in the season still eludes them.

The 3-0 win against D.C. United on Saturday wasn’t all-out domination, but was the only comfortable win in the past seven games. With five games remaining in the regular season, and a playoff spot virtually locked up, the Fire is hoping to reach its heights from earlier in the year.

“We can start mentally getting ready to treat I think these next five games like they are playoff games, mentally getting ready for it,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We haven’t clinched anything yet so I don’t think we can take any of that for granted, but obviously with a couple good results in a row now, we’re feeling pretty comfortable about making the playoffs. Now it’s about positioning. We want to get a first-round bye so, like I said, these last five games for us, from my perspective, are playoff games.”

New York City FC is three points ahead of the Fire for second place in the Eastern Conference. The two teams play at Toyota Park on Sept. 30.

They already met in Yankee Stadium on July 22. That game was the first in a stretch of seven games in which the Fire lost six. NYCFC suffered an early red card and still managed to beat the Fire. The Fire’s struggles to create and convert quality chances was evident in that game and continued for many of the next several games.

The three-goal outburst against D.C. was a sign that the Fire may be getting the attack back in gear. David Accam, whose six chances created were most in MLS this past weekend, said the attack is not quite back to its peak.

“At the moment we are creating more chances,” Accam said. “We’re not sharp in front of goal. Before we were. We were creating, we were sharp, but now we are only creating. We’re not sharp. We are still working in training at trying to be sharper in front of goal in games.”

Defensively, the Fire has allowed one goal in the past three matches. In the previous eight matches, the team allowed 19 goals. As Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster returned from injury, and Joao Meira is right behind after coming off the bench against D.C., the Fire’s defensive record seems to have improved.

That doesn’t mean the team has a clean bill of health. Both Bastian Schweinsteiger (calf) and Juninho (knee) were not at training on Tuesday. Luis Solignac (thigh) and Daniel Johnson (knee) were both limited to running. Even without Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Fire produced in a convincing win against D.C.

McCarty wasn’t worried the team would turn things around, but he has noticed more confidence in the team after getting seven points from the last three games.

“Certainly there’s more confidence in the group,” McCarty said. “We know we’re a good team. We know we can win games. Now it’s about how good can we be? We’re going to have to play our best if we’re going to be successful because I think we’ve shown that if we drop our level, even just a little bit, we’re just not good enough to win games in this league. We have to be very good every time we step on the field because other teams have certain aspects where maybe they’re stronger than us in, but if we can be at our best I like our chances against anyone.”

Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win

Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win

Since the Fire rampaged through May and June, the team and its fans have been aching to see that level of play again.

Saturday’s 3-0 win against D.C. United wasn’t quite there yet, but without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho, Michael de Leeuw and Joao Meira (who played but didn’t start) this game was never going to be about style points. It’s just win, baby time and the Fire did that.

The Fire’s struggles in July and August, combined with hot runs from other teams in the Eastern Conference, have made a first-round bye an outside shot and even a first-round home playoff game is still in question. However, with only five games remaining after Saturday’s victory, it’s just about getting three points and keeping pace.

“The name of the game is when you get to this point in the season, five games left, it’s about peaking at the right time,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “It’s about getting momentum through wins and through solid performances and getting shutouts and making sure you’re solid defensively and making sure your attacking players are creating chances. We won 3-0 and I thought Bill Hamid made five or six ridiculous saves to keep them in the game so you have to say it’s not an unbelievable performance. We’ve had better performances this year. It certainly was a step in the right direction heading towards the playoffs.”

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With all the absences (de Leeuw due to yellow card accumulation and the other three due to injury), the starting lineup more closely resembled something the Fire would have sent out a year ago, plus Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic. Even if D.C. is last in the Eastern Conference, this was not the game to expect the Fire to dominate. D.C. entered having won three out of four after summer August additions boosted the team.

“Maybe the (score) says more than actually happened because I think they pushed us very hard,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “The first 15 minutes was very tough for us. The first 15 minutes of the second half also. I think they had better opportunities in these moments, but also it was a great moment for our team.”

Despite admitting D.C. had dominant stretches of the match, United finished with 57 percent possession and 66 percent in the second half, Paunovic thought Saturday’s showing was a sign that the Fire may be returning to its best form.

“We were today what we were looking for the whole season,” Paunovic said. “I think we managed very well the game. From this basis I would say that, yes, Chicago Fire with the performance in attack was finally the Chicago Fire that we were used to seeing this year. A little bit different. The approach obviously was different.”

The key for the Fire going forward is what the team will look like once Schweinsteiger et al return. Three of the last five games are on the road and the team remains in third place.

“We’re starting to pick up positive results again,” McCarty said. “That’s encouraging. We went through a rough patch where even though we played some good games and we played well, we weren’t getting results. Playing well without getting results means nothing to be honest. Right now we’re getting good results and we’re probably playing a little bit more pragmatic than we have in the past.”

Dax McCarty: 'We expected three points, but the performance was something to be proud of'

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USA TODAY

Dax McCarty: 'We expected three points, but the performance was something to be proud of'

It was surprising to hear the way the Fire talked about Saturday’s 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls.

Coach Veljko Paunovic praised his team’s performance and said it was “a great point.” Michael de Leeuw echoed the sentiments, saying the team was “happy” with the draw.

So why would the Fire be happy with a draw at home against a team below them in the standings? Allow midfielder Dax McCarty, a former Red Bulls player, to give an explanation.

“Look, we’re not happy with the result that we got against the Red Bulls,” McCarty said. “We expected three points, but the performance was something to be proud of. You can’t sit there and say you want to play pretty soccer and play 500, 600 passes against a team like Red Bull. It’s not going to happen. They’ll eat you alive. The game was ugly. The game was about second balls and I thought our mentality of winning second balls and trying to be physical and trying to run with them was really good and so that’s why the performance was a positive one.”

McCarty has consistently been a voice of reason within the group as well as someone who has always pushed for more out of the team. Early in the season he had said the team “had a long way to go,” and that was after a win. This was another example of him doing a better job of explaining something that raised some eyebrows after Saturday’s game.

After the Fire’s winning run through May and June, followed by an extended negative run in July and August, the team is in third place in the Eastern Conference. The remaining jockeying for playoff positions will be a tight race, but goalkeeper Matt Lampson said the most important thing is peaking in the playoffs.

“Pauno talked about it this morning and I think he nailed it,” Lampson said. “It doesn’t matter what we did in May or what we even did two weeks ago. We need to start peaking now and we need to start peaking in the playoffs, just like Seattle did (last year). They were not good until the playoffs. I think that’s what we need to focus on, is just continue to progress and upward trajectory throughout the end of the year and then into the playoffs hopefully. If you play your best soccer there, you’re going to do well and that’s what we’re going to focus on doing. I think we’re starting to do that. We’ve changed tactics, we’ve got guys coming back from injury and we’re getting results against good teams and in hostile environments so it’s good.”