Fire

Fire dominant against Orlando for seventh straight home win

Fire dominant against Orlando for seventh straight home win

Are the Chicago Fire still getting better?

The Fire entered Saturday’s match against Orlando unbeaten in eight straight MLS games, yet showed a level of domination the team hasn’t had for extended periods this year. David Accam scored two goals in the first eight minutes and finished with a hat trick to lead the Fire to a 4-0 win against the visiting Lions on Saturday.

Accam’s first goal was a beauty in the third minute. It came at the end of a 17-pass buildup, which started with a Matt Polster throw in. In the end it was Polster hitting a low cross to Accam, who scored with a pretty backheel from five yards out.

“I think the main thing from the group is that we’re just all moving off the ball," Polster said. "Our movement has been very good in terms of we’re always finding the open man. We’ve been creating a lot of space for each other... I think that’s kind of what we’re trying to build, a lot of running off the ball and creating a lot of space for each other.”

Five minutes later Accam had another goal after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s long ball put Accam all alone with goalkeeper Joe Bendik in the box. Accam dribbled around Bendik and scored.

That incredibly fast start seemed to set the tone for the show. The Fire were not only dominating the game, but they were seemingly having fun while doing so. There were plenty of flicks and tricks and creative set plays on display.

Nemanja Nikolic added one in the second half, on an Accam assist. Accam finished off his hat trick, which he said he believed was the first of his professional career, in the 63rd minute on a penalty kick.

Nikolic now has 14 goals to add to his league-leading total. Even though he is in the running for the Golden Boot, there was no question who was taking the penalty kick.

“I just took the ball and he gave it to me," Accam said. "We share responsibilities with the penalties every time. I know he wants to score every game. For me I try to help him to score goals and I’m glad I did today.”

The Fire (10-3-4, 34 points) remained within a point of Toronto (10-2-5, 35 points) for the best record in the league and reached double-digit wins for the first time since 2013. The regular season is halfway finished.

“We have to understand that this is going to be a long season and we still have to look for the peak of our performance by the end of the season,” coach Veljko Paunovic said.

Orlando (7-6-5, 26 points) was without its leading scorer (Cyle Larin), was coming off a midweek game at Seattle and has one win in its past 11 MLS matches. Even with that, the Lions are in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and the Fire thoroughly dominated.

Orlando didn’t have a shot on target and the Fire had plenty of chances to score more than four. There’s another half to the season remaining, but this Fire team is coming off arguably its best result of the season (last week’s win at New England) and seems to be still improving.

At the beginning of the season, simply ending the team's five-year playoff drought would have been viewed as a minor success. Now, midfielder Dax McCarty, who is set to leave with the U.S. national team following this game for the Gold Cup, says the Fire are hoping for bigger things.

“The mentality is certainly now, let’s not just make the playoffs because that’s not good enough," McCarty said. "Sure, we want to make the playoffs, but we want to win the Open Cup, we want to win MLS Cup, we want to compete for the Supporters’ Shield. Is that realistic to compete for all three, why not? Why not us? I think that’s our motto and our attitude in the locker room right now. Why can’t we win every game. Clearly MLS is a long, hard grind and you’re going to have off days, but we step on the field every day now to compete and win games.”

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

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After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

Due to an early playoff exit, the players of the 2017 Chicago Fire have begun to disperse around the country to see family and friends back home during the offseason.

It’s not hard to make an argument that injuries played a significant part in the team’s playoff defeat. Michael de Leeuw went down on Sept. 30 with a torn ACL, Bastian Schweinsteiger played only 19 minutes in the last seven games of the season and Juninho wasn’t quite back to 100 percent when the playoffs rolled around. De Leeuw’s absence especially seemed to change the way the team played.

“Michael is loved by everyone in the locker room,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That’s off the field, but on the field he also put his best always. His quality, his mentality, character, leadership. He’s a winner, he wanted to win. That piece maybe we missed.”

More than five weeks after suffering the knee injury against New York City FC on Sept. 30, de Leeuw had his surgery on Thursday morning. Teenager Djordje Mihailovic suffered an ACL tear in the playoff loss nearly a full month after de Leeuw’s, but still had his surgery a week before the Dutchman.

“It was also my MCL,” de Leeuw said the day before his surgery. “It was a little bit sprained so that’s why they had to wait a little bit longer. Djordje only had his ACL, that’s why he already got surgery. When I saw he already got surgery I was like ‘S***, when is my turn? When can I go to the table?’ My knee is fine. It was a couple weeks longer, but it’s good now. It’s calm.”

De Leeuw said he was “a little bit” nervous going into the surgery because it was his first surgery. He had already been building his muscles, specifically quad strength, in advance of the procedure. The 31-year-old, who shared the team lead in assists with eight, will stay in Chicago for the rehab process.

He is under contract through 2018 with a club option for 2019. When asked about his long-term future, de Leeuw is confident he can return to 100 percent next season.

“I know my body,” he said. “I will be back for sure and I will be back stronger because I can do a lot of stuff in the gym now. That’s one thing I’m sure about. I will be back and I will be back stronger.

“I’m not done with the club and things I want to do here and accomplish here.”

[RELATED: Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason]

His, and Mihailovic’s, absence for the first part of 2018 will also have an impact on how the Fire approach this offseason. De Leeuw established himself as a regular starter and Mihailovic was starting to become a regular in the lineup towards the end of the year, especially after de Leeuw’s injury.

“We, for a while, had believed we had good depth, we had emerging talent on the attacking side,” general manager Nelson Rodriguez said. “We could maybe disproportionately focus our attention in other areas, other lines of play, but we have to be realistic. They each could miss a large portion of the season so we have to reconsider our initial thoughts and revise our plan a little bit. For sure now, I think we’ll need to look to add some attacking piece because that’s a lot of minutes that we planned on that will need to be filled.”