2018 marked the third season at the helm for head coach Veljko Paunović, and began with a player acquisition window that saw an influx of new players to the side. Out were midfielder David Accam and goalkeeper Matt Lampson, and in were Serbian import Aleksandar Katai and a flurry of young players in MLS SuperDraft selections Jon Bakero, Mo Adams, Diego Campos and Elliot Collier as well as Homegrown signing Grant Lillard. With Bastian Schweinsteiger additionally returning for a second season in Chicago, the club was set to start it’s 2018 campaign.
The Fire’s season began much like its season prior had finished – with forward and reigning MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolić hammering in goals in front of opposing nets. The Fire welcomed Sporting Kansas City for a wild opening day tilt at Toyota Park, a match that saw two equalizing goals and three lead changes in what ultimately resulted in a 4-3 win for the visitors. After going own 2-0 in the first half, 2018 newcomer Aleksandar Katai scored his first goal for the Fire before Nikolić answered with an eight-minute second half brace. The Fire were left wanting, however, as SKC’s Jimmy Medranda and Felipe Gutierrez gave the hosts their third and fourth tallies late in the match.
March proved challenging for the Fire, who followed the opening day defeat with a 2-1 road lass at Minnesota United and a return home to battle the Portland Timbers to a 2-2 draw and earn their first point of the season. With April came more success, as Paunović’s men collected seven of 12 points on offer. A defeat to the Los Angeles Galaxy was sandwiched by the club’s first wins of the season – a gritty 1-0 win against Columbus Crew SC and a 2-1 besting of the New York Red Bulls on the road. Forward Alan Gordon capped the month in dramatic fashion, banging in a trademark late equalizer in Toronto and helping the Fire steal a road point in a 2-2 draw on April 28.
A tough month of May began the club’s summer stretch. The Fire dropped four of six matches in the month, but were buoyed by a standout defensive performance from rookie midfielder Mo Adams in a 1-0 home win against Montreal on May 9, as well as a pair of jaw-dropping goals from Katai and Gordon in a 2-1 win on the road against Orlando City SC on May 26.
For as difficult as May proved, the Men In Red showed resilience in June, rattling off a seven-match unbeaten run in all competitions. Gordon scored his third goal in as many matches in a 2-1 win over visiting San Jose on June 2 to give the Fire some positive momentum as they entered 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play on the road against Columbus Crew SC. After 120 minutes of play, Crew SC were able to negate a Nikolić brace and send the match to penalty kicks level at 2-2. 11 rounds of penalties followed, with goalkeeper Richard Sanchez helping provide a 10-9 shootout victory in epic fashion by scoring the final Fire goal and saving Columbus counterpart Logan Ketterer on the game’s final attempt.
Draws at home against New England and on the road at Colorado followed, before the Fire traveled to Atlanta for their next Open Cup contest against Atlanta United. In front of 41,000+ fans, Nikolić delivered yet again with a 54th minute finish that propelled the Fire to the quarterfinals in a 1-0 win. The Fire would nick a point off of the Seattle Sounders on the road next, before Katai emphatically closed out June with a brace in a 3-2 come-from-behind win at home against NYCFC.
July and early August were among the club’s most difficult stretches in its history. A 4-0 win over Louisville City FC in the Open Cup quarterfinals was a highlight, when the victory sent the club through to its record 13th tournament semifinal match. The Fire’s run ended in Philadelphia, however, in a 3-0 defeat to the Union on Aug. 8. A string of nine losses in 10 matches across all competitions ended with a 1-1 draw against Columbus on Aug. 23, which spurred the Men In Red on to a memorable trip to Germany to take on Bayern Munich in Bastian Schweinsteiger’s testimonial match on Aug. 28 at Munich’s Allianz Arena.
Regular season play resumed on Sept. 16 with a 4-0 victory over Orlando City SC at Toyota Park. The match was made special by Michael de Leeuw’s first goal and two assists from Djordje Mihailović – a notable return to the scoresheet for each player after their respective completions of rehabilitation from ACL injuries suffered late in the 2017 season. Mihailović’s lone goal of 2018 would be one of the Fire’s top finishes of the season, a volleyed right-footer that helped sink LAFC 3-1 in the two teams’ first-ever meeting on Sept. 29.
The Fire would go 2-3-2 in their final seven matches following the break for Schweinsteiger’s testimonial, and would finish the 2018 season with 32 points. Nikolić led the team in scoring for the second consecutive season with 15 goals (19 all competitions), followed closely by Katai with 12. Schweinsteiger led the team with six assists, while Katai and second-year midfielder Brandt Bronico chipped in with five of their own.