It's official: the Chicago Fire will be among the six Eastern Conference clubs competing in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs.
After Wednesday night's convincing 4-1 road victory at San Jose -- and combined with a 1-0 New York City FC victory against Montreal -- the Men In Red became the fourth team in the Eastern Conference to lock up a spot in the postseason, accompanying Toronto FC, NYCFC and expansion side Atlanta United and erasing a playoff absence that dated to 2012.
And while the team was impressive from wire to wire Wednesday on the West Coast, picking up its fourth road win of the year, there's now nothing they'd like more than to guarantee themselves a postseason outing in front of their home crowd.
"The team achieved a great victory today, very important obviously, we clinched today, that’s a great achievement for the whole organization, the whole club," said second-year manager Veljko Paunovic. "We are proud of our guys and very happy obviously, but we also know we can go and try to get the best possible position in our conference, which is our next goal. Obviously today we enjoy, celebrate, but we have to start our recovery as soon as possible, fly back to Chicago and prepare for the game Saturday."
"I feel really happy and proud we achieved the playoffs with three games left in the season, it’s amazing," said Nemanja Nikolic, who netted a brace on the evening en route to becoming the club's single-season goal-scoring record-holder (20). "We want to be in the best position in the regular season, the most important thing is to play at home, Toyota Park, where we are really good."
Should results pan out in their favor over the season’s final weeks, the Fire remain eligible for a first-round bye if they finish the regular season in second place or higher. If the season ended today, the Fire would host the fifth-place team in the Eastern Conference Knockout Round in a match at Toyota Park on either Wednesday, Oct. 25 or Thursday, Oct. 26. Columbus Crew SC currently occupy the fifth position.
From fourth place as it stands, head coach Veljko Paunovic and his side will now look to improve their seeding over their final three regular season matches -- a home contest with NYCFC this Saturday (7:30 p.m. CT | TICKETS), followed by a visit from Philadelphia on Oct. 15 and a trip to Houston on Oct. 22.
After a brilliant first half of the MLS season, Paunovic and his men banded together through a difficult stretch in late August and into September, and now feel the freedom that comes with meeting one of their key team goals for 2017.
"This locker room did a great job so far, the guys were amazing, huge credit to them," Paunovic said. "Everyone in the club is working and doing their best, but they needed to see, these guys had to do it on the field. When that happens, everyone else believes ... it makes everyone in our environment, especially our fans, to believe in what we’re doing. We don’t have the pressure of playoffs, we finally clinched and now it’s very important to put everything on the table and get the best possible position toward the playoffs."
Playoff bound 🔥🔥 #cf97— Dax McCarty (@DaxMcCarty11) September 28, 2017
Playoffs? Yup, playoffs. #cf97— Matt Lampson (@LampStrong) September 28, 2017