BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The Chicago Fire's 3-0 victory over D.C. United Saturday night has coach Veljko Paunovic’s guys right back where they want to be: on a modest three-game unbeaten run and looking up rather than down in the playoff standings.
A four-match losing skid had threatened to derail the Fire’s playoff ambitions. But Saturday night’s comprehensive victory, coupled with three points at Montreal two weeks ago and a hard-earned home tie with the New York Red Bulls last weekend, has pushed the Men in Red (14-9-6, 48 points) back within three points of second-place New York City FC, who tied at Colorado Saturday.
What's more, Nemanja Nikolic scored from the penalty spot for his team-leading 18th goal and second in as many games, after a scoreless stretch of nine matches.
“I would say from this basis that the Chicago Fire, with the performance in attack, was finally the Chicago Fire that we were used to seeing this year,” Paunovic said. “I think we still have to improve, we still have to do a better job in controlling the game, not committing some easy or innocent mistakes in our organization. But I think that we are picking up, we are building momentum for the playoffs, which we still obviously have to earn it, we still have to secure.”
With just five games to go, the Fire could have their destiny in their own hands in terms of the race for second. NYCFC will visit Toyota Park on September 30 after the Fire return from a two-game road stretch at Philadelphia and San Jose. That proverbial six-pointer could decide who finishes as runner-up to earn a passage through to the playoff semifinals, and who must negotiate a knockout round game in the 2017 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
“Obviously we always look high at the standings, we want to get to second place, we are going to do our best,” Paunovic added. “Like I’ve always said, our approach is the next game and at some point this season that was more accentuated, but this is how we are going to prepare. I briefed the guys before the game and at halftime not to watch the other results, because we have to do our job. Then, whatever happens on the other side, if we can benefit from that, perfect, but we have to do our job, and that’s how we are going to approach until the end.”
Dax McCarty, Saturday's captain, also believes that he and his teammates have put their bad run behind them and are building momentum going into the final stretch.
“We’re starting to pick up positive results again and that’s encouraging,” McCarty told MLSsoccer.com. “We went through a rough patch where even though we played some good games and played well, we weren’t getting results. Playing well without getting results, it means nothing, to be honest. Right now, we’re getting good results and we’re probably playing a little more pragmatic than we have in the past. 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. It’s about getting momentum through wins, through solid performances and getting shutouts and making sure that you’re solid defensively and making sure your attacking players are creating chances.”
The Fire’s offense certainly did that, peppering the outstanding Bill Hamid with 21 shots to D.C.'s 10. If Hamid hadn’t been in such fine form, the result would surely have been even more convincing, and Nikolic might've bested Ante Razov's Chicago Fire single-season record 18 goals rather than merely tie it.
“We won 3-0 and I thought Bill Hamid made five or six ridiculous saves to keep them in the game,” McCarty added. “It’s not an unbelievable performance -- we’ve had better performances this year -- but it certainly was a step in the right direction heading towards the playoffs.”
Shane Murray is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.