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If Fire wants to win a title, it must roll on the road

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Things are looking up for David Accam and the Chicago Fire and after posting an MLS-tying best 11-3-5 mark, it is possible this team is championship material.

 

As the Chicago fire returns from the CONCACAF Gold Cup break tied with Toronto with the best record in Major League Soccer, the question is in the back of most fans’ mind.

Can this team win it all?

It’s a fair question.

With an 11-3-5 record before the break, the Fire is making believers out of a lot of people. The team may have had the worst record in the MLS for two straight seasons heading into the 2017 campaign, but the front office, headed up by general manager Nelson Rodriguez, brought in three new pieces – Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger – that have helped turned this team into a contender.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Fire fans were hoping the team could just finish in the top six of the East and make the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

But that changed in recent weeks as the team went on an 11-game unbeaten streak heading into the break. Now it’s not all that crazy to expect a deep run in the playoffs and possibly snag its second MLS title – the first coming in 1998, when the team entered the league with a bang.

The 2017 team seemingly has it all. Nikolic has an MLS-best 16 goals and could give the league’s all-time mark of 27 (set by three players) a run for the money.

David Accam has 10 goals and the most legitimate complaint is that perhaps a few more Men in Red could get involved in scoring as well.

The defense and goalie Matt Lampson have been effective.

Perhaps the team could use another player or two to shore up the depth, but just about every contender can say that.

Alas, the one area that the Fire absolutely must get better at is its play on the road.

While Toyota Park in Bridgeview has actually become the “fortress” that Nikolic said it must become at the beginning of the season, the road is still unkind.

Chicago is 9-0-1 at home and has outscored opponents a jaw-dropping 27-4 in those games.

The team is 2-3-4 on the road and has been outscored a jaw-tightening 15-10.

That includes a humiliating 4-0 loss to expansion Atlanta (before the team picked up Schweinsteiger) and a 2-2 tie against Portland on July 5 in which the Fire had a 2-1 lead in the second half.

Throw in a shootout loss in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to a United Soccer League middling team -- FC Cincinnati -- which doesn’t count in the MLS standings and it’s obvious the team needs a little more spark away from Bridgeview.

Eight of its last 15 regular season games are on the road including four of its next five. The Fire visits the New York City FC on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, Sporting Kansas City on July 29, come home against the New England revolution on Aug. 5, head to Ohio for a match against the Columbus Crew on Aug. 12 and visit Montreal on Aug. 16.

And the schedule maker didn’t give the team a break on the next home game. The team won’t be very well rested when it faces Toronto Aug. 19, ending a three-game-in-eight-day stretch.

So second-year coach Veljko Paunovic knows there is a long road ahead.

“The best motivation is the next game,” he said. “That’s how we prepare. Next game, next game. It’s not a time to look behind you. Of course, we’re very happy to be in first place, but we motivate our guys to look at the next game, prepare for the next game and compete, give their best.

“The results with that approach are coming and what we have in this group is the hunger. Everyone is driven by the goal that we have this year, which is playoffs. I think the team has an even higher ceiling. Once we get to the playoffs, we have to set another goal, but we will talk once we are in the playoffs.”