Prior to the start of this 2017 MLS season, perhaps not even Chicago’s most religious soccer fans would have believed that their club had an actual shot at reaching the playoffs. Yet, three months into the season, the Chicago Fire are heading into tomorrow night’s match-up in Orlando unbeaten in five straight matches, and currently seated at third place in the Eastern Conference table with 24 points.
Granted, the MLS playoff picture is still months away, with plenty of time for the table to shift.
Still, the fact that the Fire are even above the red playoff line at this point in the season, especially considering the fact they haven’t even come close to a playoff berth since 2012 (and moreover haven’t been serious contenders since the days of Cuauhtemoc Blanco), certainly testifies to the club’s transformation under head coach Veljko Paunovic.
Early in the season, the acquisitions of Dax McCarty and German champion Bastian Schweinsteiger were a couple of the most talked about moves around the MLS. Although it took a few games for the pair to find their rhythm, and more than a few lineup and formation changes from Paunovic between games, the two midfielders have undoubtedly found their chemistry alongside each other and have helped improve the Fire’s play dramatically on both sides of the ball.
And yet, despite how fresh the Schweinsteiger, McCarty, and Veljko stories still are, a new story is unfolding as we speak; Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic is currently emerging as one of the best strikers in the league, and in a matter of weeks has found himself sitting among the leagues best forwards with 11 goals this season – the most in the MLS.
Nikolic has perhaps filled a void the Fire weren’t even sure it had. Last season, even in the midst of a relatively unproductive offense, the Men in Red put their faith in the crafty play and dangerous foot of David Accam, and many supporters predicted that this season would be his breakout. The start of 2017 however found Accam battling through injuries and starting the bulk of games on the bench, which largely left fans wondering if this would be another slow and low-scoring season for the Fire.
Apparently Nikolic had other ideas in mind. Since the Hungarian’s breakout, Accam himself has been able to find a rhythm in his new role as play-maker, tallying himself seven goals next to four assists this season.
As the Fire head to Orlando tonight to face a team that lurks just one point behind the Fire in the Eastern Conference table and is fresh off a 2-0 home win against D.C. United, the one major concern for Fire fans might be their club’s difficulty playing away from home.
That said, the Fire’s current five-game unbeaten streak does include their victory in D.C., their first road win of 2017. With a team this hot, and a smattering of stars like McCarty, Schweinsteiger, Accam, and Nikolic, the only thing the Fire truly have to worry about is themselves, and the more distant but still imaginable prospect of slipping back into the talented but dysfunctional unit of prior seasons.
Game coverage begins at 6:30 PM CT, and is available live on FS1 and FOX Deportes.