New York Red Bulls

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.”

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.