There was a lot of buildup to the Chicago Fire’s season opener.
A new coach, a lot of new faces on the roster and a season opener at home.
What immediately followed was a first 45 minutes many Fire fans won’t remember fondly. The Fire trailed 3-1 at halftime and, while the second half was better, the 4-3 loss to New York City FC was not how Veljko Paunovic wanted to start his coaching tenure.
The Fire haven’t lost since, with two draws and a win, and now have a second chance against NYCFC when the Fire travel to Yankee Stadium on Sunday.
“Our honor is hurt,” Paunovic said on Monday. “We feel like we have something there that we want to solve, some payback for us is something that we are looking for this game. We want to be competitive in this game, respectful, totally respectful for a great team and a great performance New York had here. We also feel like there is something special about this game and we will prepare very well to payback.”
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Beyond the payback Paunovic speaks of, Sunday’s match is also an opportunity for the Fire to show how much the team has improved. After the March 6 loss, Paunovic and the players both spoke about it taking time for this team to jell and figure things out with so many new pieces.
Now four matches in, this trip to Yankee Stadium can be an early benchmark for a side-by-side comparison of what the Fire are better at than they were to start the season and what is still a work in progress.
“When you’re playing against the same exact team that you played three games ago it’s easy to draw examples so it will be pretty clear if we are improving because the opponent is the same,” midfielder Michael Stephens said. “We have a common thread there.”
On the other side, NYCFC hasn’t won since knocking off the Fire. Two draws and a loss, all at home, have followed the win in Toyota Park.
Paunovic has an extra bit of energy in his voice when talking about the chance to get a result against the team that ruined the Fire’s home opener. He also thinks the Fire have made strides and are capable of returning from New York with a result.
“I think we improved in everything,” Paunovic said when asked about how the team compares to Week 1. “I think we improved in our style, we improved in our fitness.
“Everyone is very, very motivated. We are very excited for the next game.”