The Chicago Fire is in second place in the Eastern Conference, a big leap from the last-place slog of the past two seasons. Just don’t expect any gloating around Toyota Park.
It’s far too early for the Fire (6-3-3, 21 points) to claim its revival is complete.
“We’re obviously in a good moment: unbeaten in four, three wins in a row, consecutive shutouts,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said, meeting with the club’s beat writers to mark the one-third point of the season. “But while we’re pleased, we aren’t satisfied. The reality is we haven’t achieved anything yet.”
Actually, the Fire has achieved something, even if it is small. The Fire has achieved a good start, which it hasn’t had in recent years. It’s something that can give fans hope that the club’s playoff drought could end this year.
The Fire has given itself a fighting chance.
“There’s a lot of road still left in front of us,” Rodriguez said, smartly too cautious to claim victory a mere 12 games into a 34-game season.
“We have to be a little bit modest given that we as a club have struggled for so many years,” Rodriguez added.
A lot can happen over the remaining 22 games. The Fire has avoided long-term injuries to its core players so far, the only losses a leg injury to key reserve John Goossens that will keep him out a few more months, and Matt Polster’s preseason knee injury, which sidelined him the first nine games.
Juninho is nursing an ankle injury, but that doesn’t appear to be a long-term concern.
The Fire almost surely will lose midfielder Dax McCarty to the U.S. national team when World Cup qualifying resumes in June, and might again for the Gold Cup in July.
McCarty is the Fire’s most valuable player so far, even more valuable than German superstar Bastian Schweinsteiger, speedy David Accam and forward Nemanja Nikolic, the league’s leading scorer. Losing any of them for a significant amount of time would cause major problems, as would losing a defender on a back line lacking depth.
“Injuries are going to occur,” Rodriguez said.
The Fire already has made a change at goalkeeper with Matt Lampson replacing key off-season signing Jorge Bava, who struggled the first eight games. Drew Conner and then Polster replaced Michael Harrington at right back after eight games, solidifying a team weakness.
And the schedule only gets more difficult, especially when the Fire gets into U.S. Open Cup play next month.
“Our expectations were to make the playoffs,” Rodriguez said, admitting that goal is just a first step toward MLS Cup. “Our expectations were to contend to win the Open Cup championship, and those continue to hold.”
But will the team’s early-season success hold through the heat of a Chicago summer and into the fall?
“Just looking ahead,” Rodriguez said, “the road is very challenging, very difficult.”