Despite struggles in recent years during the regular season, the Chicago Fire have had a good run in the preseason.
In Veljko Paunovic's two years in charge, the Fire have posted two undefeated preseasons, but the February success goes further back than that. In officially listed preseason matches on the Fire's website, the Fire went 7-1 in 2014, and a less impressive, but still undefeated 1-0-4 in 2015. Last season, Paunovic's first season, the Fire posted a 5-0-1 preseason mark.
The Fire failed to make the playoffs in any of those years and were dead last in Major League Soccer in each of the last two years.
This time around the Fire went a perfect 6-0, beginning with two shutouts and finishing with four more wins in which the Fire scored 16 goals. Downplaying the relevance of preseason results seems obvious, especially with the Fire's recent track record, but is there some benefit to winning as opposed to losing?
Midfielder Dax McCarty snickered at the question when asked at the Fire's season kickoff luncheon on Monday.
"I don't think it's that valuable at all actually," McCarty said. "It's nice to win. The goal in every game you play is to win games. Preseason teams are tinkering, teams are playing different formations and players and personnel. I think the general thesis of preseason should be to try to work on the things that you want to do in the season that are going to make you a successful team. For each team that's different so we definitely put value on the results that we got, you always want to win every time you step on the field, but in terms of what it means for the regular season, it doesn't mean much. We have a lot of confidence knowing that we have a good team and we have good players and the results in preseason showed that. As far as how valuable it is, I don't think it's very valuable at all. It's definitely nice to say you went through the preseason unbeaten I guess."
The purpose of the preseason is generally to get players in shape for the season, find how certain pieces on the team fit together and to begin to form the relationships on the team, both on and off the field, that will be crucial when the games matter. Results are, with good reason, viewed as secondary.
However, general manager Nelson Rodriguez said there are intangible benefits to winning in the preseason, although he admitted thinking the same last year when the team had a good preseason and then went winless in the first three matches of 2016 and struggled throughout the year.
"Of course they matter," Rodriguez said of preseason results. "They matter during the preseason, but [season opening opponent] Columbus is not afraid of us because we went 6-0-0 in the preseason. But again what the results during preseason allow to have happened is this belief in each other, is in this trust in the style of play and the proactive nature we're trying to build at the club. Results confer legitimacy, losses erode it. So in that regard I think it was helpful."
Juninho, who like McCarty is a league veteran and new addition to the Fire this offseason, leaned more towards McCarty's sentiment.
"What we got from there was the minutes and the games," Juninho said. "That's what was the main thing. When the season starts it's another game. We all know that and we have to work and focus on the season."
Paunovic talked about the team's work in the preseason and building confidence, but wouldn't talk about the results.
"We believe that the preseason is very important, but obviously as I said, when the season starts that's where you see who can handle the difficult situations and who you can count on."
When the Fire head to Columbus for the March 4 season opener both teams will have clean slates. The Fire will be hoping to turn a winning preseason into a winning start to the regular season and go against the recent trend.