As the Fire head into the final home game of their three-match home stretch at Toyota Park, they stand as the only Eastern Conference team above the playoff line that has a negative goal differential. Saturday’s visiting opponent, Lee Nguyen and the New England Revolution, are sitting just behind the Fire in the conference table with but one point less.
In other words, league standings are quite fragile at the moment, and Chicago’s uncharacteristic (and very possibly momentary) placement near the top of the Eastern Conference standings could be undone by the end of this MLS weekend. Even as an optimistic start to the season has lent an increasing sense of hope for the Fire’s playoff picture, only a three point result from Saturday’s match will keep anxious fans at least somewhat comfortable before the club heads out on a three-match away stint.
That bridge will be crossed next week, however, as this Saturday will see two very evenly matched teams take the field at Toyota Park and battle out what’s looking to be an MLS classic.
A few weeks ago, the Revolution’s Lee Nguyen subtly bragged about his club’s dangerous offensive weapon, branding himself along with teammates Juan Agudelo and Kei Kamara as a “triangle partnership” following the trio’s four goals and one assist in their home opener. Despite the undoubted chemistry between the trifecta, the Fire are operating under a “triangle partnership” of their own.
Dax McCarty has looked sharp all season. After the addition of Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Fire’s last two games have proven that the midfield duo can do some serious damage. Factor in last week’s game-clinching goal from one Nemanja Nikolic who is finally beginning to find his rhythm at striker, and the trio have accounted for four of the last five consecutive Fire goals.
Despite the Fire’s below-zero goal difference, goalkeeper Jorge Bava has two shutouts to his name so far this season, including in last week’s match when his save in stoppage-time secured a 1-0 Chicago victory. That game followed a 2-2 draw while hosting Columbus, a single-point result that was happily welcomed after the Fire had been shutout by Atlanta 4-0 just two weeks earlier.
Yes, the Fire’s defensive performances have largely lacked anything positively noteworthy all season, but the last three matches show improvement. Furthermore, New England’s Kei Kamara – who, by the way, led his team in scoring last season – was held to a zero stat line in both goals and assists in all three of the Revs’ contests with the Fire in 2016.
In Bruce Arena’s takeover of the USMNT, Lee Nguyen was left off of the official roster heading into two “must-win” games against Honduras and Panama. Perhaps this is telling of Nguyen’s place in New England as well, a side that missed last season’s playoffs for the first time in three-straight prior appearances.
Meanwhile, Chicago Fire midfielder Dax McCarty has filled Nguyen’s empty spot on the national team. It could be said that McCarty’s trade to the Fire from his captaincy at New York has finally been the central building block head coach Velkjo Paunovic has needed to build his team around. Although usual scoring machine David Accam has been relatively quiet as of late, McCarty’s growing chemistry with German star Schweinsteiger, combined with his proven facilitation of dangerous goal-scoring passes, have propelled the Fire into a palpable playoff position the Men in Red haven’t seen in years.
Final Notes: It’s worth mentioning that the Fire have not walked away from the Revs without at least a point in five straight matches, and moreover Chicago has lost only one game in all of their last 19 matches at home including US Open Cup fixtures.
The game begins at 4 p.m. this Saturday from Toyota Park.