The Major League Soccer season isn't a quarter of the way through yet, but early results have the Chicago Fire in contention for a playoff spot.
After going 2-0-1 in a three-game homestand, the Fire have 11 points through six games. That's good for third place in the Eastern Conference.
Plenty can and will change during the 34-game regular season. Seattle was 6-12-2 last season before storming back in the second half of the season and then remaining hot in the playoffs. Still, the Fire had only four points at this stage last season and didn’t reach 11 points until the 12th game of the season.
"We're in good form right now," defender Michael Harrington said. "We're confident. Obviously we're sitting good in the table and that just speaks to the guys who have been on the field doing the business. This is a different team than last year. It's a completely different team so we don't really look at the past results. We look to right now and the way that we're playing."
Four playoff teams from last year, D.C., Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia, are currently out of the top six in the conference. That probably won't last, but it shows how open the race could be. Toronto (1-1-4, 7 points) and Montreal (1-2-3, 6 points) each have played just two of their six matches at home so there is some reason to expect a quick turnaround once that balances out. Meanwhile, Philadelphia (0-4-2, 2 points) is winless and already has some ground to make up.
On the flip side, the Fire are not the only upstart team. Columbus (4-2-1, 13 points) is looking more like the 2015 version that hosted MLS Cup than the 2016 version which missed the playoffs. Expansion team Atlanta (2-2-2, 8 points) has had a solid start despite playing four of its six matches on the road.
With the way MLS goes, the playoff race won't be much clearer until the final few weeks of the season. It does appear, though, that the Fire will be a part of it.
"I think that we can feel and see the confidence all around the team, but we also have to know that we haven't done anything yet," coach Veljko Paunovic said. "It's just started."
The Fire didn't win consecutive MLS games in Paunovic's first year, but have already done so in 2017. Paunovic noticed the difference from a year ago after reflecting upon the 3-0 win against New England last weekend.
"For me it was the first game that I walking in that tunnel after the game and felt 'Wow, we were a great team today,'" Paunovic said on Tuesday. "That's the first time I felt like that, but I still think we can do way better."
If the Fire can continue to play well on this upcoming three-match road trip, it will be a solid statement that the Fire are going to stay in the playoff spots. Toronto hosted MLS Cup last year and still has much of the same talent on the roster. Trips to the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy, both teams that have made the playoffs every year since 2010, follow.
"We need to enjoy these games I think if we want to compete and if we want to be better," forward Nemanja Nikolic said. "Of course this is a new team with new players and the most important thing was to find our style, our identity, what we want to play. I think we can say that we are OK, we are on the beginning of our way.
"Of course with the goals, with the good results, the players are more relaxed on the pitch. These kind of things have led to really good things."