BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The Chicago Fire may have arrested their recent slump with a hard-fought 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls, but it’s clear the Men in Red are still some way off the form of their 11-game unbeaten run earlier in the year.
“Grind” seemed the best word to describe a performance in which the Fire fell behind to Bradley Wright-Phillips' early goal before offering a resolute response that culminated in Nemanja Nikolic's 66th-minute equalizer.
That goal had been coming after consistent pressure from the home side that included two efforts off the woodwork in the first half. But after Nikolic added to his team-leading tally with his 17th goal, the Fire seemed content with their lot and never looked like building on the momentum of the equalizer.
Afterward, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic and many of his players saw the tie as a point gained in their quest for the playoffs rather than two points dropped at home.
“This is a great point,” Paunovic said. “We played against one of the great teams in the league with huge experience, huge resources, great team on the field. They pushed hard and we played hard. That's what it is and that is what it's going to take from here on out. Every single game like this we have to play. We have to grind, we have to push, we have to give our best and that's what the guys did. I'm proud of them and [it was a] fantastic job from everyone. One point in this game means a lot, it can be decisive for the playoffs."
Paunovic’s perspective may have been shaped by the Fire’s recent struggles, which saw them win just once in eight games from July 5 to August 26. That included back-to-back defeats at Toyota Park after winning 10 and tying one of their previous 11 home games.
Michael de Leeuw, who provided an instinctive, acrobatic assist on Nikolic’s leveler, believes the Fire are now showing signs of putting that bleak run behind them, with this tie following a tough road win in Montreal.
"Let's hope so,” de Leeuw said. “I think everybody saw in the game in Montreal, we were fighting for each other, we were taking points again. That streak is gone, we don't want to think about that anymore; just keep moving forward, keep doing what we're doing and the points will come."
Nikolic, who broke a nine-game run without a goal after starting the season in sensational form, paid tribute to de Leeuw for his part in what finished with a straightforward headed goal from him from six or seven yards.
"The goal, for me, was deserved for Michael de Leeuw because he put back the ball from nothing,” Nikolic said. “I just run to give support to him but to be honest, I don't see too many opportunities that could cut the ball back to me. I don't know how he did that but it was a really important moment from him."
Even with the hard-fought draw, the absence of playmaker Bastian Schweinsteiger Saturday with a calf injury will give Paunovic and Fire fans cause for concern going into the final six games of the season. But with three of those set for Toyota Park, the Fire should have enough in reserve to clinch a first playoff spot since 2012.
Like his coach, de Leeuw believes the point earned against a close rival like the Red Bulls could yet be decisive in that effort.
"I think we're the winners today,” de Leeuw said. “We could have won the game but at the end you see them pushing, so at the end I think 1-1 is the correct result. I think we're happy with it."
Shane Murray is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.