With a tough three-game road trip staring ahead at them, the Chicago Fire know Saturday's home game against New England is a crucial early season game.
Not only is it important because it is against an Eastern Conference opponent and the playoff race is shaping up to be incredibly tight, but the Fire need to get points now while they are at home before embarking on a road trip at perenially tough teams in Toronto, the New York Red Bulls and LA.
"You always want to win your home games, especially we had three in a row and we're almost through those and obviously then a big road trip coming up so you always want to win your home games," midfielder Dax McCarty said.
Saturday's game against New England will be live on CSN+ with coverage beginning with Fire Pregame Live at 3:30 p.m.
The match will be the third straight home game against an Eastern Conference opponent for the Fire. The first two were a 2-2 draw against Montreal and a 1-0 win against Columbus.
"I was very disappointed with how we lost two points in the Montreal game," McCarty said. "I thought our performance warranted three points, but we didn't finish and we didn't close the game out well and we didn't defend well. I thought (against Columbus) we learned from our mistakes."
Even after losing to the Fire, Columbus still leads the conference with a 3-2-1 record (10 points). The Fire (2-1-2, 8 points) are two points behind, tied with Atlanta for third. New England (2-2-1, 7 points) is one of five teams with seven points.
It's early, but the Fire weren't really in the playoff race or conversation at all in 2016. Coach Veljko Paunovic talked up the team's improvement, bolstered by additions like McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
"We are not afraid of saying that we are getting better," Paunovic said. "We also know that we still have to work a lot and become the team that everyone in Chicago wants to root for and everyone is supporting and everyone wants to watch. That's what we are working on. Hopefully we can succeed this year. We are on that path. I am 100 percent sure, but we still have to work."
The Fire enter Saturday's game with Luis Solignac (left knee) and David Accam (right hip) listed as questionable. Matt Polster has been out since the preseason, but worked his way back to full training this week and could make his season debut.
Polster will join an already crowded central midfield. Juninho returns from red card suspension and Schweinsteiger and McCarty each have a man of the match to their names in the last two games.
"I think for the most part I've started the season off pretty well, pretty solid," McCarty said. "I'm happy with how I started the season, but I think there's always room to grow.
"I still have another level I think I can get to and I think this team can get to. It's important to recover and get ready for New England."
Meanwhile, New England has a clean injury report. The Revolution have plenty of talented attacking players in Lee Nguyen (3 goals, 1 assist), Kei Kamara (2 goals), Juan Agudelo (3 goals) and Diego Fagundez (2 assists). That will test the Fire's defense. It also increases the importance of the midfield keeping pressure off the defense, like McCarty alluded to.
Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution
Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
When: Coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. Saturday with Fire Pregame Live
Records: Fire (2-1-2, 8 points), New England (2-2-1, 7 points)