Throughout the preseason there was an emphasis from players and coaches that getting off to a good start to the season was essential for the Chicago Fire.
Through two matches, so far, so good. The Fire picked up a draw at Columbus and a win in the home opener against Real Salt Lake.
The next four matches, a trip to Atlanta followed by three straight at Toyota Park, represent an opportunity to extend and cement that good start. Just ask coach Veljko Paunovic.
"Our first goals were in the first couple of games to have a good start," Paunovic said after the RSL match. "We achieved that and we have to now move forward in the next four games. We believe we have a great opportunity to make the difference and set up the season for us."
The upcoming match at Atlanta won't be easy. The expansion team just put six goals past Minnesota in Minnesota's first home match in MLS and features exciting, fast, young attacking talent.
After that though, the Fire host three Eastern Conference teams which are all without a win in the young season. First up from that group is Montreal, which made the playoffs last year but lost at San Jose and drew Seattle at home in the its first two matches of 2017. Next up is another match with Columbus followed by a date with New England, which missed the playoffs last year.
Getting several points from that stretch is both attainable and important because the Fire will then embark on a three-game road trip and face seven straight playoff teams from 2016, including both MLS Cup finalists and the top three teams in last year's Supporters Shield standings.
"Obviously for us it was very important for us to start well, but we have to know that we haven't done anything yet," Paunovic said after training on Wednesday. "Four points, one win, still a long way to go. The next game is going to be a very important game. It's a test actually for us to see if we can keep this positive progression that we have and positive start."
In order to extend the positive start, the Fire will have to improve in certain areas. Much of the narrative coming from the players after the win against RSL was that the Fire didn't play very well, but still won by two goals. After scoring two goals in the first 15 minutes, the Fire struggled to control the ball and, as a result, absorbed a lot of pressure from RSL.
"The last game wasn't that great, but still the team is solid right now," forward Michael de Leeuw said. "Even if we don't play very well we still create a couple chances and we got the quality to score the goal. Defensively we're not giving chances away. At this point we're standing good. Everyone is confident and we're happy to play Saturday again and go on with the road we're on."
Possession was something the Fire struggled in last season as well. The Fire were last in the league in terms of share of possession.
In the opener at Columbus had just over 45 percent of the possession. Last weekend the number was just under 42 percent. Those numbers are similar to last season when the Fire averaged 43.5 percent of the possession. The difference is that the defense has held up so far.
"I think that's something we kind of lacked last year," midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. "Even though we were up 2-0, I think we gave up some silly goals last year. I think this year I think things are turning around, we're not doing that. Obviously that helps."
The Fire visit Atlanta at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium at 3 p.m. on Saturday.