Stejskal: Explaining the Chicago Fire's slide down the standings

Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger - Chicago Fire - Close up

They say they’re not panicking, but there’s no hiding the fact that the Chicago Fire are in a serious slump.

Chicago lost 2-1 at home to Minnesota on Saturday night to slip to fourth in the East, just five points ahead of Montreal and Atlanta – both of whom hold games in hand on the Fire – for the conference’s final playoff spot. The defeat was Chicago’s fourth in a row and sixth in their last seven, and was Minnesota’s first-ever MLS road victory.

The Fire were on top of MLS when the slide began. Now, they’re 12 whole points behind league leaders Toronto FC. Their focus is no longer on a potential Supporters’ Shield, but instead on shoring up a playoff place that looked all but assured just a month ago.

How’d Chicago fall into such a rut? Let’s take a look:

Nikolic's drought grinding down attack

Nemanja Nikolic tore MLS apart for the first few months of the season, scoring 16 goals in his first 18 matches to power the Fire to the top of the table and to put himself atop the Golden Boot standings.

It was as impressive a run as we’ve seen from any striker in recent years, and it had people wondering whether Nikolic could take a shot at the all-time MLS single-season scoring record.

Needless to say, that talk has disappeared in recent weeks. Nikolic hasn’t scored in his last eight games, a stretch that dates all the way back to July 1. He missed a couple of good opportunities on Saturday night, part of a broader trend of inefficiency for the entire Fire attack. Chicago have been relatively wasteful in front of net during their downturn, never more than on Saturday. The Fire outshot Minnesota 20-8 and out-possessed the Loons 58-42, but only found the back of the net in the 76th-minute through David Accam.

Midfielder Dax McCarty was blunt when talking about his team’s struggles on Saturday.

“I just think it’s a simple game,” he said. “If you give the other team breakaways and tap-ins, you’re going to concede goals. On the other end if it takes you 25 shots to score on goal, that’s not a recipe for winning many games.”

The Fire and Nikolic were efficient with their chances during their run to the top of MLS. As things have dried up for the Designated Player, so they have for the entire Chicago team. They’ll all need to get back to being their ruthless selves in the box for the Fire to have any real shot at making noise in the postseason.

Injuries weaken backline

Nikolic’s struggles have received plenty of ink in recent weeks, but the injury issues along the Fire’s backline haven’t gotten anywhere near as much pub. Let’s change that.

Chicago’s downturn has coincided with a rash of injuries to their starting defenders. Left back Brandon Vincent, who had been making big strides in his second year as a pro, went down with a quad strain in warmups against NYCFC on July 22 and hasn’t played in seven games. Chicago, who recorded nine shutouts in their first 19 matches, haven’t recorded a single clean-sheet since.

Vincent isn’t the only Fire defender who’s gone down. Right back Matt Polster has missed the last three games with a left knee injury, and center back Joao Meira left in the fifth minute of Chicago’s loss at Montreal on Aug. 16 with a calf problem.

That trio marks a full 75 percent of Chicago’s first choice back four. They’ve gotten solid performances from some of their depth pieces throughout the year, but head coach Veljko Paunovic can’t rely on the combo of Drew Conner, Patrick Doody and Christian Dean to be successful starters week in, week out. Getting in shape in the back should help Chicago return to their winning ways.

No more mo’

It may be brushed aside by some, but for a rebuilding team like the Fire, momentum is a very real, very beneficial phenomenon.

Heading into the Gold Cup break, Chicago had plenty of it.  The Fire were 8-0-3 in their last 11 regular season matches following their 2-2 draw at Portland on July 5. They were confident, they were clicking and they were top of the table. It was the exact wrong time for a two-and-a-half week break.

Chicago couldn’t carry their momentum through the Gold Cup stoppage. The Fire’s run of six losses in seven games started in their first game back from the CONCACAF championship on July 22 at NYCFC, and they’ve yet to find their way out of their rut.

According to Paunovic, it’s all starting to take a bit of an emotional toll.

“According to the [statistics], we run at least like other teams or more, we have more possession,” he told reporters after Saturday’s loss to Minnesota. “We have more initiative and we are not different on that side than where we were in the past. I think it’s the mental thing. We are now in a situation where we are actually running a lot, we are doing a lot, but we are not sharp, we are not efficient. Then it always goes back to the confidence. It always goes back to the mentality. When it’s difficult, you see how everyone behave against adversity.”

Things are difficult at the moment in Chicago, who are in danger of seeing their wonderful turnaround go belly up. Their next chance to stop the bleeding won’t be an easy one, as the Fire play next at hard-charging Montreal on Saturday.