Just over two months ago, the Chicago Fire kicked off their 2019 MLS campaign with a visit to the LA Galaxy, performing well and taking a 1-0 lead but ultimately falling 2-1 to a Galaxy side that presently sits second in both the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield standings.
On Saturday, the Men In Red were back in Southern California, this time to face the only team above the Galaxy in the league and conference table. Los Angeles FC -- under the stewardship of Fire and U.S. coaching great Bob Bradley -- had consistently made light work of their opponents at home in 2019, winning five times in five games with a +10 goal differential (14-4). But unlike against the Galaxy and in recent trips to New York City and Montreal, the Fire secured the result to match their resolute performance, playing LAFC to a scoreless draw and becoming the first regular season guests since last October to deny LAFC the full three points at home.
From his vantage point, Fire head coach Veljko Paunović saw in his squad a continued evolution and the ability to manage a game through its various phases.
“I think it was a very interesting game," Paunović said postmatch. "When you see the result, maybe you won’t say that but I think they had their opportunities, we had our opportunities. It could go either way. But, at the end of the day, I think we had a very smart approach in the first half. Then, in some moments, we took over and we started to believe in our plan even more when we countered a couple of times and we saw that what we prepared and spoke about is possible and then the team started to grow, especially in the second half."
Indeed, after LAFC came close to the breakthrough on two first-half occasions, the Fire found their own opportunities to threaten and keep the hosts on their heels. Defensively, the back four of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Johan Kappelhof, Jorge Corrales and the dynamic Przemysław Frankowski -- making his first start since March 30th after nursing a groin injury back to health -- allowed little breathing room to Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi on the LAFC wings.
As a result, Paunović departed Banc of California Stadium thinking as much about what might have been as the satisfaction of a well-earned result.
"When you come into the locker room after the game, when you see that you actually feel a little bit mad because you could win the game and you’re not satisfied with what you got," he said. "But [the point is] something at the end of the day that you’re taking away from here."
The Fire now return to Chicago for two key games at SeatGeek Stadium, where they'll be seeking to rediscover the finishing touch that at times eluded them on the just-completed three-game road trip. First up is a midweek date with the New England Revolution (Wednesday, 7 PM), followed by a Saturday night matchup with Minnesota United FC -- whose former captain, defender Francisco Calvo, made his Chicago Fire debut off the bench versus LA just one day after officially being acquired via trade with Loons.
"Now that we have two games at home, it’s going to be a priority to win both and we have to prepare for that," Paunović said. "So, I think with this point that we are bringing home, it’s a good start for this very important week and the confidence of the guys.”