BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Four-game winning streaks are a rarity around these parts, but Veljko Paunovic and Dax McCarty put the Chicago Fire’s significant progress down to the team’s new-found maturity in 2017.
A composed and controlled 90 minutes saw the Men in Red emerge deserved 2-1 victors over a much-heralded FC Dallas, who despite resting several of their regular starters, provided a stern test of the Fire’s ambitions this season.
Goals from MLS Golden Boot leader Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam allowed second-placed Chicago to close the gap on Eastern Conference leaders Toronto FC to just two points, and gave the home side their first four-game streak since 2012 to firmly establish themselves as one of the teams to beat in MLS with a winning record of 7-3-3.
“We are shaping our style in a way we’ve always wanted,” Paunovic said in his postgame press conference. “We are becoming a mature team, with a strong character and a very strong team in terms of having a very good locker room. The atmosphere was fantastic after the game inside, obviously [we have] 24 points, we still have a lot to improve and we will improve, but I think we are managing the season the way we would like to have the progression.”
Captain McCarty was again instrumental in driving his team forward from midfield and providing the resolute protection that restricted one of the league’s best possession-based, attack-minded teams to a solitary shot on target. That the Fire managed four shots on target, and scored with two, against MLS’s meanest defense also illustrates the significant strides that have been made by Paunovic’s men in his second season at the helm.
“For me, this was the hardest game we’ve played in our four-game stretch by far,” McCarty admitted. “They’re a really well coached team, they’re really organized, they’re tough to break down, they have the best defensive record in the league for a reason, and I don’t care if they rotated players, that was a really good that we just played. For me, it shows signs of maturity, our team is growing and guys on the field are just winning their individual battles.
"When you have nine, 10 guys all raise their level and play well the team is usually going to play well. This is the evolution of going from a bad team to becoming a great team, and we’re not there yet, but we’re somewhere in the middle.”
The progress both men speak about, and which general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke about earlier this week, has been a roster-wide effort, with valued contributions coming from the entire squad and not just the starters Paunovic has kept faith with the last three games.
But where can that improvement take the Fire? Can they leave the disappointment and underachievement of the last few seasons behind them and make a concerted challenge for honors this year? McCarty certainly thinks so.
“We’re certainly better than we were at the beginning of the season,” McCarty stressed on the team’s improvement over the opening third of the campaign. “I think the main difference is that this team is playing with a lot of confidence, I think that what happens is when you get a couple of results in a row the belief just grows even more. So now, instead of thinking, ‘Hey, we might be able to make the playoffs,’ the belief turns into, ‘Hey, we might be able to do something special this year, we might be able to start thinking about winning some trophies, being a championship team.’”
“I think there is still more improvement to come as what I expect is to be progressive. If we can jump from this level to the top level, which is required to be successful and reach the playoffs, I will be happy only if we can sustain it.”