Despite losing three in a row, five of six and coming off the first home loss of the season, the mood isn’t one of panic around the Chicago Fire.
The general tone coming out of interviews after practice on Tuesday was that the team simply needs to stay on course and the results will turn around naturally.
“In a way we have to forget about the games which we lost, but on the other way we have to learn (from) it, to play some certain moments in a game better,” midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “I think we had, even in these games, we had some good parts in the game. But at the end we lost and that’s not a good feeling.
“Now it’s the moment where we have to show character and this team has character.”
The Fire’s 11-match unbeaten run from May to early July propelled the team to the top of the MLS standings, but things have turned drastically in the other direction since. The current losing streak has seen the Fire fall to third in the Eastern Conference while Toronto and New York City FC have racked up points and earned some separation as the top two teams in the league.
Midfielder Dax McCarty said the Fire are somewhere in between their hot streak and the current slump.
“Just like we weren’t the best team in the league when we were 11 games unbeaten, we’re not the worst team right now,” McCarty said. “We’re in a rough spell. I think it was always realistic to think we were going to have a spell like this in the middle of the season. You get injuries, you get call ups to the national team. You get a break, break up your rhythm, and, guess what, I think we’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes this year and I think we’ve garnered a little bit more respect around the league and so teams are starting to play us a little bit differently. Teams are starting to be a little clever about how they play us and what they do against us and now it’s on us to adjust.”
The sentiment that every team in MLS goes through a slump at some point is mostly true. Toronto opened the season winning just one of its first six, with four ties during that stretch. NYCFC had a run of one win in five matches in the middle of the season. Seattle currently leads the Western Conference after starting 2-5-4.
The Fire are now one of 10 teams in MLS to go on a three-game losing streak at some point this year, but the context of the three losses should make it more palatable for Fire fans. The three games were in an eight-day period when the Fire endured injuries to two starting defenders (Matt Polster and Joao Meira), when one (Brandon Vincent) was already out. Two of the losses were on the road to playoff contenders and the third was at home to the league leaders.
Realistically, the Fire won’t be able to catch Toronto, which is nine points ahead, and catching NYCFC, five points above the Fire, won’t be easy with nine games remaining. On the upside, three of the next four games are at Toyota Park and five of the final nine are against teams out of the playoffs currently.
The schedule offers the Fire an opportunity to go on another run, or at least to right the ship after enduring a tough stretch.
“We certainly need to move on, but we also need to learn from the games that we’ve played, the mistakes that we’ve made because, you know, this is crunch time,” McCarty said. “The season is getting down to the wire here now and I don’t think anything is guaranteed. We’re certainly not guaranteed to be in the playoffs and these are crucial games for us coming up.”
Coach Veljko Paunovic believes the wins will come as long as the team remains confident.
“Maybe other people can lose confidence in us, but we cannot lose it,” Paunovic said. “I think we did so much so far and we have good reasons to believe in ourselves. We have a great team, experienced team, we have a lot of youth, we have good results, 41 points. We are still at the top of the standings with other teams obviously and we have to fight for the first place. Obviously our main goal remains playoffs so in the last nine games we have to do our best to first assure that we secure the playoffs and then obviously we will look at other goals.”