Dax McCarty

Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit

Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit

The Fire’s playoff run was over less than 15 minutes after it started so what the heck happened?

From the run of play the Fire were competitive with the New York Red Bulls with both possession and total shots being fairly even. However, two defensive blunders, with multiple players at fault on each of the early goals, put the Fire down 2-0 in 11 minutes.

There was no coming back from that and once the team sent numbers forward late in the second half to try to come back, New York put the game away. The 4-0 loss was a sour way for the Fire’s season to end.

“I thought we got outplayed all over the field,” said midfielder Dax McCarty, a former Red Bulls player. “That’s a team that’s been battle tested in the playoffs now for five, six years. They’ve experienced a lot of hard games, a lot of tough games in the playoffs. They’ve experienced a lot of disappointed in the playoffs and we aren’t quite there yet.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn’t start and played only 25 minutes after coming off a calf injury. While the German said he felt good, there wasn’t much he could do. Five minutes after he entered the match, the Red Bulls took a 3-0 lead.

Coach Veljko Paunovic wasn’t angry or despondent in his postgame press conference. He tried to stay upbeat while looking towards next year. He also took the blame for the ugly 4-0 loss.

“It’s my fault,” Paunovic said. “Obviously it’s my fault. If there is somebody to blame it’s my fault because I think we all could do better.”

[RELATED: Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress]

The Fire finished with the third best record in Major League Soccer, but laid an egg in the postseason. There’s plenty of ways to look at that. The team didn’t have enough experience, they were shorthanded due to injuries, they played tight.

Throw any excuse out there, all that matters is the team made a quick exit out of the playoffs and now the offseason has begun.

“It’s just frustrating that we lost and we lost in such a frustrating manner,” McCarty said. “We worked hard, we showed heart, but realistically we barely put up a fight there in the beginning. I thought the first 20 minutes we were struggling to feel like we were in a playoff game. You can’t do that if you want to win.”

Schweinsteiger’s future, along with the futures of many players, will remain in question for the coming weeks. The German’s final words of his first year with the Fire were all positive. He spoke positively about the coaching staff and the teammates, but admitted the team wasn’t good enough yet to win a title.

“I think it was a great success, achievement, what we did this season,” Schweinsteiger said. “I think you need to add one or the other piece. If you have 10 steps, I think we took seven. Eight, nine, 10 those are the hardest ones.”

McCarty echoed Schweinsteiger’s sentiment.

“A lot of guys took a big step forward, but we just weren’t quite ready to make a real realistic push at a championship and that showed in our performance tonight,” McCarty said.

Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress

Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress

In the playoffs, big moments in a game are magnified and the smallest things can get huge amounts of attention.

However, the Fire’s 4-0 loss on Wednesday was not about fine margins. Two early defensive breakdowns and the inability to seriously threaten the Red Bulls’ goal led to an embarrassing loss.

The emotions Fire fans are enduring right now cover up an important fact: this season was ultimately a solid step forward for the Fire.

When Nelson Rodriguez took over as general manager at the end of the 2015 season, the Fire were a laughing stock. That was the third straight season the club missed the playoffs and in 2015, the team finished dead last in MLS.

Even after sweeping changes that included bringing in coach Veljko Paunovic and revamping a roster that began the year with no players who had been on the team for even two years, the Fire finished dead last again in 2016.

During the losing, Rodriguez continued to preach patience. He repeatedly talked about “getting it right, not getting it fast.”

[RELATED: Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit]

Only this year did it become apparent that some of the foundation was in fact put in place in 2016. That wasn’t so easy to see when the team continued to lose on the field, and often looked bad doing so. Players that were key in the team making the playoffs this year were acquired in 2016. Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira proved to be a solid center back pairing, 2016 first-round pick Brandon Vincent emerged as one of the better left backs in the league after a mistake-filled rookie year, Luis Solignac found a niche on the wing and Michael de Leeuw, although injured for the playoffs, embraced his role as supporting striker while Nemanja Nikolic took all the glory on the way to winning an MLS Golden Boot.

This offseason brought more good acquisitions that helped put the team over the top, including Nikolic. Dax McCarty, Juninho and of course big name star Bastian Schweinsteiger revitalized a midfield that was among the league’s worst a year ago.

So while Wednesday’s ugly defeat marked an earlier end to the postseason than the Fire expected, a wider view should allow for the season as a whole to still be viewed as a success, even if only when considering the context of previous seasons.

Just ask Schweinsteiger, who pointed out the surprise of the team’s regular season success.

“I have to say that this team did an amazing job this season,” Schweinsteiger said. “We were third in the league. I know the players decide everything, but you have to be realistic. Before the season if someone told you guys Chicago Fire would be third after 35 games you would probably say, all, that would not be the case.”

McCarty, who has been on playoff teams eight straight years, called making the playoffs “the bare minimum requirement for success.” The Fire reached that bare minimum and nothing more, but after back-to-back last place finishes, it’s noteworthy progress and brings with it the hope for more progress in the future.

If 2018 mirrors 2017, things might not get such a positive shine, but in the grand scheme of things, 2017 was better than expected and brought life back into what appeared to be a lifeless MLS franchise.

Fire preparing for playoffs to be 'incredibly different'

Fire preparing for playoffs to be 'incredibly different'

The two teams heading into Wednesday’s MLS playoff opener have very different recent histories.

The New York Red Bulls are entering into an eighth straight postseason while the Fire have made it just one other year, 2012, during the Red Bulls’ run. So while the Red Bulls have plenty of playoff experience, the Fire have just a few players on the roster who have played in the playoffs, Arturo Alvarez, Michael Harrington, Juninho and former Red Bull Dax McCarty.

McCarty is in the spotlight a bit more than normal because of the subplot of facing his former team in the playoffs after his drama-filled exit in January. He also gets to tell his team about just how different the playoffs are from the regular season.

“It’s incredibly different, in every sense,” McCarty said on Monday. “I can’t stress that enough. The little details, they become even finer. The margin between winning and losing is so thin that the team that is sharper on the day, the team that is more physical on the day, the team that works harder on the day, that’s usually the team that gives themselves the best chance to win. Now, you have to obviously add in quality to go along with that, but playoff games are not like regular season games. They’re just not.”

McCarty also shared this message, along with some of the other MLS playoff veterans, with the team on Monday. For someone like David Accam, who endured back-to-back last place finishes in his first two years with the Fire, this is a good kind of different.

“We had a meeting, everyone shared their experience and how the playoffs is and how they felt during the playoffs,” Accam said. “I’ve played in major competitions before and I know the feeling. It’s a knockout game and you want to win. A lot of people are watching and you want to show that you are good enough to be playing in this type of game so everyone is excited.”

McCarty played in a number of big games with the Red Bulls, but the club hasn’t made MLS Cup since 2008. For all of their regular season success, which includes Supporters' Shields in 2013 and 2015, the Red Bulls have developed a reputation of struggling in the playoffs.

“I know first-hand that that team has been through some battles and they’ve had a lot of heartbreak and they’ve had guys that have been in really big games before,” McCarty said. “I think we have, too, but to a lesser extent.

"I think experience is important because you know what to expect... In a sense that helps settle the nerves a little bit.”

The experience gap as far as MLS playoffs go is big, but others on the Fire have big match experience. Johan Kappelhof participated in the Dutch Eredivisie’s playoffs to qualify for the Europa League and of course Bastian Schweinsteiger has won the Champions League and the World Cup.

As for the German, he returned to training on Monday. The team arrived from Houston on Sunday night and would normally have a regen day or an off day after a match, but the short turnaround didn’t allow for that. Schweinsteiger sat out the last two games due to a calf injury that has limited him to one 19-minute appearance in the past seven matches, but should be back Wednesday.

“I feel OK," Schweinsteiger said. "I mean obviously I didn’t play so many minutes in the past month, but I feel OK. Let’s see.”

Will he start?

"It's a secret," he said with a laugh.

The concept of playoffs to Schweinsteiger is literally a bit foreign. He quipped about how different the seasons are compared to what he’s used to.

“We came third in the whole country,” Schweinsteiger said. “I don’t know if you were expecting that before the season. I think it’s good, but at the end of the day in America it depends on the playoffs. In the Bundesliga you would be in the Champions League, but here it’s more or less, yeah, nothing.

“It’s going to be hopefully a great evening for us.”