Atlanta United FC

Former coach Bob Bradley defends Fire as best MLS expansion team ever: 'Somebody lost their mind'

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AP

Former coach Bob Bradley defends Fire as best MLS expansion team ever: 'Somebody lost their mind'

It didn’t take long for Atlanta to make a splash in MLS as an expansion team this season.

The team leads the league in attendance, spent a lot of money on talented young players like Miguel Almiron (who had Arsenal as a suitor) and Josef Martinez (who has Italian Serie A experience), has a very impressive training facility and just debuted in the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

That has led to some people posing the question of whether Atlanta is the most successful expansion team in league history. Seattle is brought up in this discussion, which packed big crowds into CenturyLink Field, won the U.S. Open Cup and made the playoffs in its first season in 2009. However, the Fire won both the Open Cup and the MLS Cup in 1998.

Bob Bradley, who coached that Fire team, defended the Fire’s honor while appearing as a guest on the radio show/podcast Soccer Today. With Bradley now embarking on another expansion adventure in MLS, coaching Los Angeles FC when it will debut in 2018, co-host Steve Davis asked Bradley if Atlanta’s success puts more pressure on him and LAFC.

“That Chicago did team very well as an expansion team, so did Seattle in 2009,” Davis began before Bradley interrupted.

“Wait, wait, wait, Steve,” Bradley said. “Yes, Seattle did very well. Atlanta is doing very well. We won the double, Steve. So when you said we did very well, let’s cut to the chase a little bit. We won the double. As good as Atlanta is doing this year, when there was a headline early in the year that this is the greatest expansion team of all-time, somebody lost their mind.”

Most of the interview with Bradley focused on his preparation for the upcoming maiden season in LA. As a result, he referenced his experience with the expansion Fire frequently. The full interview is worth a listen for the Lubos Kubik story he tells and some other anecdotes about that team.

“That Chicago team probably never got the credit it deserved because there were those people that didn’t like the makeup of the team, or where certain guys came from,” Bradley said. “But inside the league, if you talk to players who played against those Chicago teams, I can assure you the level of respect was very, very high.”

Fire move within one point of MLS' best record after beating Atlanta

Fire move within one point of MLS' best record after beating Atlanta

With each win the Chicago Fire continue to prove that this year’s team is among the league’s best.

The Fire added another win on Saturday, beating Atlanta United FC 2-0. It is the Fire’s sixth straight win at home, improved the team’s record at Toyota Park to 7-0-1 this season and extended the current unbeaten run to eight games.

It also was an important sign of improvement for the team after the Fire (8-3-4, 28 points) were crushed 4-0 at Atlanta (5-6-3, 18 points) back in March, the last game before Bastian Schweinsteiger joined the team.

Both teams had chances in the first half, but the Fire got the first breakthrough. David Accam got behind Atlanta’s defense on a long ball and dribbled around goalkeeper Alec Kann in a scramble situation. Atlanta’s defense got back in position, but Kann was still out of his goal. After a number of dekes and fakes, Accam finally found Luis Solignac, who scored into the open net in the 29th minute.

The Fire played on the counter with Atlanta controlling over 60 percent of the possession. Accam had a number of chances on the counter, but only converted with the assist to Solignac. Nemanja Nikolic also hit the post on a shot in the first half.

"I think we missed a little bit to score one more goal in the first half," Schweinsteiger said. "We had very good opportunities, unfortunately we couldn’t play it out well enough to maybe score a second in the first (half). In the second (half) I think we also had very good situations to score a goal. Other than that we are very pleased with three points."

The Fire added to the lead in the second half when a handball was called in the box following an Accam corner kick. Nemanja Nikolic padded his league-leading goal total (12) by converting the penalty.

The second goal seemed to be the backbreaker for Atlanta, which had been pressing for the equalizing goal, but didn’t create much after going down two goals. Schweinsteiger and coach Veljko Paunovic both admitted it wasn't a pretty win, but it ended up being a fairly comfortable win.

"It was hard, it wasn’t joga bonito, but it was a game to win, and we did,” Paunovic said. “It’s always important to keep the clean sheet and to be the team, especially when you play at home to feel like you’re playing in your fortress. I think right now we kind of have that feeling."

Atlanta started the match without two of its best players. Leading scorer Miguel Almiron came off the bench after playing for Paraguay in a friendly on Thursday. Josef Martinez also returned to action as a sub. The last time Martinez played was against the Fire in March, a game in which he scored two goals.

Dax McCarty was out for the Fire. The key midfielder has been one of the biggest reasons for the team's improvement this season. He is still with the U.S. national team. Juninho started in his place, his first start in over a month.

“The good thing about our roster this year is that we have options," Paunovic said. "We can play different systems, we can play with different formations, different players."

The Fire are now one point behind Toronto FC (8-2-5, 29 points) for the best record in Major League Soccer and have an eight-point cushion ahead of the playoff cutoff in the Eastern Conference. The team already has one more win than all of last year.

“We look good, we look solid, but this is not done," Paunovic said. "Like we always say, we don’t want to constrain now, but we have to be smart in managing the rest of the season."

On Wednesday, the Fire begin play in the U.S. Open Cup with a trip to Saint Louis FC.

Fire seek to display improvement against Atlanta after lopsided loss in March

Fire seek to display improvement against Atlanta after lopsided loss in March

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.”