Last season the Chicago Fire didn't have a two-goal lead in an MLS match until Aug. 20. This year it took the Fire just 15 minutes into the home opener.
Nemanja Nikolic and Arturo Alvarez scored the early goals and the Fire beat Real Salt Lake 2-0 at Toyota Park on Saturday.
Nikolic took advantage of a gift for the first goal of his Fire career. Michael de Leeuw was trying to play in Nikolic, who appeared to be well offside. The linesman had his flag up, but the referee waved off the offside because Salt Lake midfielder Sunny Stephen got the last touch of the ball, negating the offside. Nikolic played on, all alone in front of goal, and converted for the 1-0 lead in the 11th minute.
"First game in Toyota Park and my first goal," Nikolic said. "My first victory for Chicago. It's wonderful. I expect this. Of course after the 1-1 in first game, I saw after the game that very important point if we won today at home. We start this season with four points. It put confidence for us and we need to stay focused."
Arturo Alvarez doubled the lead with another fortunate break. He cut in on his left foot, his preferred move, and the shot took a deflection off David Horst to wrong-foot goalkeeper Nick Rimando for a 2-0 Fire lead 15 minutes into the match.
"It took a small deflection and sometimes that's how it goes," Alvarez said. "You kind of do all the hard work and you need a little bit of luck sometimes."
The Fire (1-0-1, 4 points) held RSL (0-1-1, 1 point) to just one shot on target, but had to endure some pressure in the second half. RSL had 61 percent possession in the second half, 58 percent for the match, and managed 12 shots.
After coming away with a draw at Columbus last weekend, the Fire have four points in two matches, which qualifies for the good start to the season the players and coach Veljko Paunovic had talked about in the preseason.
"It was very important to start the season, especially the home opener, to win the game," Paunovic. "Very important for our confidence, very important for everything."
RSL was without center backs Justen Glad and Chris Schuler and rookie Justin Schmidt started at the position. Joao Plata, who led RSL in goals and assists last season, was also out.
The Fire's starting lineup was the same as last week at Columbus except for Juninho, coming off suspension, replacing the injured John Goossens in the lineup. Rookie Brandt Bronico, the Fire's third round pick in the draft, replaced Nikolic in the 85th minute for his debut. Homegrown midfielder Djordje Mihailovic also made his MLS debut in the final minute.
Juninho and Dax McCarty played next to each other in midfield for the first time since the two were acquired this offseason.
"Our midfielders did a fantastic effort," Paunovic said. "I think their leadership, their commitment, consistency in hard work and winning all these duels and battles we had in midfield were very important. Juninho and Dax are contagious for the rest of the team and that mentality, you can see that it's getting all over the team. It's very important for us. As I said, everyone else I think understood how important it was after 2-0, how we have to play what we have to do. I love that determination that we had, after 2-0 we said we are not going to concede more goals. We are not going to concede chances and the team worked very hard and very well."
McCarty had more of his simple, but precise passing that helped lead to Fire chances. Juninho nearly scored on a free kick in the 81st minute if not for a diving save by Nick Rimando.
"I felt very good, to be my first game of the season," Juninho said. "Also, the partnership between us. Getting to know a lot more each other.
"I think we did good of the middle of the field playing against Luke and Beckerman. I think it was a big challenge for us and a big test. Trying to push those guys forward."
The match earned some history as having the coldest kickoff temperature, 28 degrees, for a home opener in club history.