On paper it appears the Chicago Fire have improved over the course of the season. Saturday’s match against Atlanta is a chance to prove it.
Back in March the Fire were smoked 4-0 in Atlanta. It was the third game of the year and an early red card to Johan Kappelhof doomed the Fire in a sold-out Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Fire were overwhelmed even before the red card and that result appeared to be a warning sign that the Fire weren’t as improved as the team hoped.
Things have changed since then. The biggest change is the addition of Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German signed during the team’s off week after the loss in Atlanta and debuted in the next match against Montreal.
The Fire are 6-2-3 since Schweinsteiger’s arrival, unbeaten in the last six games and sit second place in the Eastern Conference.
Schweinsteiger said he hasn’t heard much about that game in Atlanta from his teammates, but he has watched some of their games since.
“They are a very good team in my eyes,” Schweinsteiger said. “They have players who can decide a game with one-against-one situations, one-against-two situations. They are aggressive, but they also lost some games.”
Atlanta (5-5-3, 18 points) has scored the most goals in MLS (28 in 13 games) despite having played two fewer games than half the league. The Fire (7-3-4, 25 points) are coming off a scoreless draw in Orlando, which was the first time the Fire did not score since the game in Atlanta.
“We have to find our game,” Schweinsteiger said. “We have to improve our last pass, maybe, or the build up to get easier chances. But we have to be very careful about their players as well. They have quality in the squad so it’s going to be, in a way, tricky for us.”
One of the key figures from Atlanta’s 4-0 win against the Fire in March was Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan forward scored two goals in that match, but hasn’t played for Atlanta since. He got injured playing for Venezuela, but is nearing a return.
Martinez, who received some praise from Brandon Vincent on Fire Weekly on Tuesday, scored five goals in the three games he played for Atlanta before getting hurt.
National team absences will play a big role in the game as well. The Fire will still be without Dax McCarty, but expect to have Juninho back after his wife gave birth last weekend.
Atlanta could be without leading scoring Miguel Almiron, who played 77 minutes in a friendly Thursday for Paraguay. Forward Kenwyne Jones, who played against the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday, will also be out.
Regardless of who is there, coach Veljko Paunovic views Saturday’s game against Atlanta at Toyota Park as a good measuring stick for the Fire.
“This is a great opportunity, a more than an opportunity it’s a great test for us,” Paunovic said. “A maturity test, a test to see how we improved since the game against them and in that game actually the maturity was the main problem.
“Now we are playing against a team that actually was the team that hurt us a lot. We did recover after that loss, but there is still the sense of the payback that we have to implement in our motivation for this game.”