Djordje Mihailovic

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

In the Fire’s resurgent 2017 season, the team earned its playoff berth on the back of a lot of dominant wins against bad or mediocre teams mixed in with some impressive wins against good teams from the Western Conference.

But one thing is missing: wins against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The field of six teams is all but set, with Columbus clinching on Saturday to join the Fire, Toronto, Atlanta and Saturday’s opponent, New York City FC. The New York Red Bulls are limping into the playoffs, but still have a firm grasp on the final playoff spot.

After Saturday’s 1-1 draw against NYCFC, the Fire’s record against those five teams is now 2-6-3. Each of the five teams has at least one win against the Fire and top seed Toronto has two.

Those two wins have questionable value as well. The Fire beat Columbus came in April. The Crew made changes this summer and are currently on an eight-game unbeaten streak. The Fire also beat Atlanta when its two best players, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, came off the bench.

So with the MLS playoffs just under a month away, Saturday’s game was a chance to not only make up ground in the standings, but to prove the Fire can beat good teams in the East. The Fire hold an impressive 5-1-1 record against the eight teams jockeying for playoff spots in the Western Conference, but those teams aren’t in the Fire’s immediate playoff future.

“Obviously we don’t feel good about the tie,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have two games more. We will build up the mood that will prepare the team now. We will first recover and we’ll look towards winning all six points. Obviously we know that’s easy and simple to say, but it’s not easy to do, but we are confident in our team.”

Paunovic opened his press conference on a somber note by speaking about Michael de Leeuw’s injury. The Dutch forward suffered a knee injury, was helped off the field by two trainers and was subbed off in the 30th minute. Paunovic said it “doesn’t look good,” but the team is awaiting MRI results to see the extent of the damage. If it is significant enough to keep him out of the playoffs, that would be a blow to the team.

The Fire remain in fourth place after Saturday’s games. Atlanta, which is in third-place with one more point and one more game remaining than the Fire, drew at New England. Columbus won to move within two points of the Fire for the final hosting spot in the first round, but the Crew’s final two games are on the road so the Fire appear likely to finish fourth.

[RELATED: See the latest standings and scenarios in the playoff tracker]

Despite having clinched, no one on the team was thinking about feeling relaxed with that accomplishment out of the way.

“It took a little bit of pressure off, but we’re still focusing on getting a top spot in the conference,” midfielder Djordje Mihailovic said. “Maybe second place, third place. That’s what we’re going for. There’s no letting off any bit.”

The Fire next play on Oct. 15 after MLS takes a break for international matches. Philadelphia comes to Toyota Park for the final regular season home match and the following Sunday the Fire play at Houston.

“I think we got to get back onto the game we did in San Jose,” forward Luis Solignac said of the team's 4-1 win on the road three days before. “It was a perfect example to build on. Be sharp with a killer instinct in the final third, take the chances and I think that’s our focus. Keep organized and keep our minds in the right way that it’s win these two games to get in the best shape to the playoffs.”

Notes from the rewatch: Richard Sanchez's first start, Djordje Mihailovic's first goal

Notes from the rewatch: Richard Sanchez's first start, Djordje Mihailovic's first goal

On paper, Wednesday's game in San Jose was going to be very hard for the Fire.

The team was coming off a bad road loss in Philadelphia three days earlier and rotated a lot of the starting lineup with a big game coming up against New York City FC. The Fire delivered one of the best performances of the season and two of the key performers were not regular starters.

Richard Sanchez made eight saves in his first Fire appearance and Djordje Mihailovic scored his first MLS goal to give the Fire an early lead. How good were the two young players?

Sanchez's oddly busy first start

The score said 4-1 and it was 4-0 until the final minutes of the game, but Sanchez was very busy between the posts in San Jose. He had to make eight saves, the most for a Fire goalkeeper since Matt Lampson made nine saves in Vancouver on May 11, 2016.

Sanchez had one tough save to make in the first half, a hammered free kick by Danny Hoesen that was right at Sanchez. He held his ground and did well to not give up a rebound on that, instead blocking it away from danger.

In the second half, after the Fire took a 3-0 lead in the 48th minute, San Jose put an onslaught on the Fire's goal. San Jose had 12 shots in the second half, 10 of which came in the final 25 minutes. This save below was Sanchez's best highlight.

The ball appeared to have smacked off his face, but it's his positioning that deserves credit. He was in the right spot and made himself big so he didn't have to make a reaction save. He was already where the ball was most likely to wind up.

Sanchez didn't show anything notable, good or bad, in his distribution. He came out well for crosses on occasion, although he did fail to get a strong fist to a corner he attempted to clear in the 70th minute. Overall, it was a strong first start for the 23-year-old, one worthy of starting a legitimate goalkeeper battle with Lampson.

Strange final numbers

As mentioned, the Fire dropped back with a three-goal lead early in the second half and allowed San Jose to dictate play. The Earthquakes ended up creating a lot of opportunities and on another day could have been in this match. The Fire dominated the first half and deserved to have a two-goal lead at the break, but a pair of mistakes by San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell made the game a blowout.

While Sanchez was having a solid game, Tarbell turned the ball over deep in his own end with a bad pass that led to the third goal. On the fourth goal, he came off his line to challenge Michael de Leeuw on a breakaway. De Leeuw chipped Tarbell, who froze on the shot. Nemanja Nikolic, like any good goal poacher, continued to chase after the shot and won the race for the rebound after the chip hit the bar and bounced back into play. A goalkeeper who can use his hands to punch away a ball should never lose a race to a ball with a player forced to used his head.

The Fire probably don't drop as deep without that third goal and maybe they can maintain the pressure of the first half, but it's reasonable to think that without Tarbell's two mistakes the game could have had a very close finish. San Jose outshot the Fire 20-14, although the Fire maintained a 10-9 edge in shots on target, and nearly got possession back to 50-50 after the Fire controlled the first half. It's crazy to think a three-goal game was decided by the goalkeepers, but Tarbell cost his team two goals and Sanchez might have saved the Fire one.

Mihailovic's positive performance in a new role

The Fire's teenage homegrown player had three MLS starts before Wednesday. All of them were in attacking roles, either centrally or out wide. In San Jose, Mihailovic played as one of the deep midfielders alongside Dax McCarty.

When Mihailovic had played in attacking midfield spots, he tended to get lost in the game. Maybe he didn't know where to be or maybe he was failing to be assertive enough to get involved. Either way, that wasn't a problem in the deeper role on Wednesday.

His skillset has led many to believe that he is somewhat of a classic playmaker, but he also seems to have the profile of a deeper midfielder. For one, his pressing ability is among the best on the team. That has shown whenever he is on the field. It's not traditional defensive play that is needed as a defensive midfielder, but it can be enough when a veteran like McCarty is next to him. He also is smooth enough on the ball to not turn the ball over too many times in traffic, something that Drew Conner struggled with the previous two games.

Mihailovic still made some mistakes, one turnover in the 32nd minute which resulted in San Jose getting a free kick just outside the box. He also showed good connecting play going forward. Check out this give-and-go with Nikolic.

Mihailovic completed 56 out of 64 passes, including 39 out of 42 in the first half, and scored his first MLS goal.

Here's a deeper look at his goal, which featured a nice job of filling the space up top as de Leeuw dropped deep to play a pass.

A goal worth a special mention

The Fire have had a few goals with extended strings of passes this season and added another Wednesday. The second goal was a 17-pass sequence that resulted in a crazy volley cross assist from de Leeuw.

Fire clinch first playoff berth since 2012

Fire clinch first playoff berth since 2012

Just when things were looking dour for the Fire, the team delivered arguably its best road performance of the season and the reward was the club’s first playoff berth since 2012.

The Fire suffered an ugly loss in Philadelphia on Saturday and headed to San Jose without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and David Accam. On top of that, the day began with the two teams directly ahead of the Fire in the Eastern Conference standings, New York City FC and Atlanta, both picking up wins.

However, losses by Montreal and New England earlier on Wednesday meant the Fire could clinch a playoff berth with a win or draw at San Jose. The Earthquakes had lost just once at home, but the draw part of that equation was never necessary in a 4-1 Fire win.

“I feel really happy and proud. We achieved the playoffs,” Nemanja Nikolic said on the postgame interview on CSN. “It’s amazing, but we need to push like (we have) until now. We have more games and we want to be in the best position.”

It was the kind of performance that will give Fire fans confidence in the team again after the Fire struggled for much of the past three months. The damage of the recent slump is already done though with a top-two seed and a first-round bye remaining unlikely, even with the win.

However, Wednesday’s win also made a home game in that first-round increasingly likely. Fifth-place Columbus is four points behind the Fire with three games remaining and the Crew only has one more home game.

The Fire host New York City FC on Saturday. Both teams rested key players on Wednesday to prepare for that game. Accam didn’t travel with the team in an effort to keep him fresh for that big game. David Villa, NYCFC’s star forward, didn’t start in the team’s 1-0 win in Montreal. Villa played 29 minutes off the bench.

The Fire’s win in San Jose also had a few individually noteworthy moments:

  • Nemanja Nikolic scored two goals to bring his season total to 20, a new club record.

“I am really proud that I am a record-holder of this club,” Nikolic said. “This is my first year. 20 goals in my first year and three games more, it’s not bad. This pushes me to work harder.”

  • Djordje Mihailovic, an 18-year-old homegrown midfielder, scored his first career goal and had an assist. In the halftime interview on the broadcast, he said he was trying to play with no pressure.
  • Richard Sanchez, a goalkeeper the Fire acquired in August, made his first start for the team. He made eight saves before losing the shutout in the 87th minute.