Chicago Fire Burn Their Way to the Top of the MLS Standings

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The Chicago Fire have gone from worst to first in MLS, having beaten the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-0 on Saturday night. After a few early scares from the visitors, the Men In Red took over the remainder of the match. Veljko Paunovic’s Fire were up by three goals at halftime, and then up to the top spot in MLS by full-time. Chicago had been chasing Toronto FC for the lead in the Supporters Shield race but TFC lost to FC Dallas. The Fire go top of the table for the first time after 18 games since 2005. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that finished the 2016 season at the bottom of the MLS table. Saturday’s win keeps the Fire unbeaten at Toyota Park and marks Chicago’s second consecutive 4-0 win.

Chicago Fire Burn Their Way to the Top of the MLS Standings

The Men In Red showed real mental fortitude by rebounding triumphantly after their gut wrenching midweek U.S. Open cup exit. The Fire dominated a Vancouver side who came into Toyota Park unbeaten in June, and began the game with real menace. In the opening moments it looked like a tired and slumping home performance from Chicago as Vancouver produced a couple chances inside the first ten minutes. The game turned on its head moments later however as the Fire began feeding the ball to leading scorer Nemanja Nikolic. The Hungarian international netted a brace in a span of less than five minutes. An unmarked Arturo Alvarez netted a sublime volley in the 25th minute to make it three by halftime.

Michael De Leeuw completed the blowout win by finishing off a Nikolic pass into the corner past Vancouver’s David Ousted. De Leeuw’s goal was his first of the 2017 campaign and came moments after another comical miss in front of net. The Dutchman’s goal brought the Fire’s bench to their feet and caused mass celebration as the forward was finally rewarded for his fine support play. Outside of Bastian Schweinsteiger picking up an injury and center back Joao Meira taking a knock, the game could not have gone any better for Chicago. The Open Cup loss aside, this team continues  to improve with every game.

Fire Show Their Depth

The Fire showed their strength in depth again by routing Vancouver without Dax McCarty and David Accam, who are away on international duties. Juninho put in his strongest and most experienced performance in a Fire shirt by stepping in and controlling the middle without McCarty or Schweinsteiger in the second half. The Brazilian midfielder celebrated his 200th MLS game by being the Fire’s controlling midfield anchor. The MLS veteran has largely been a bit part player for the Fire so far, playing in support of the league’s best midfield duo of McCarty and Schweinsteiger. Juninho put in the club’s single-best passing performance of the season, completing 76-of-79 attempts (via Opta).

Hurry Up and Wait

The Men In Red will need Juninho to be their rock again when they travel to Portland Wednesday. Schweinsteiger will likely not play as he left Saturday’s game in the first half, complaining of hip pain. The German World Cup winner has done well to stay healthy through the first half of the season. Schweinsteiger’s health was the big question mark surrounding his landmark signing with the Fire in late March. A younger member of the Fire squad may get a rare start in hostile Portland midweek. 18-year-old Djordje Mihailovic could get his name called for the midweek match as he saw late game action Saturday. Veljko Paunovic seems to favor experience however. The Serbian head coach is more likely to return Matt Polster to the midfield and put out Drew Conner at right back. Wednesday night is the Fire’s final league fixture until July 22nd. The Fire won’t play at home again until August 5th against the New England Revolution. The third matchup with New England will be the first Fire game following the 2017 MLS All-Star game.