Two teams were fighting for their first playoff appearance since 2012 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose last night, but only one really threw and landed the punches, hard.
The Chicago Fire’s 4-1 win at San Jose helped them clinch their first playoff appearance in five years, and although they put together what some will call their best performance of the season last night, head coach Veljko Paunovic and company know that the job is far from over.
“The team achieved a great, great victory today, very important, obviously,” he said after the match. “Now we can go and try to get the best possible position in our conference, which is our next goal.”
Chicago finished dead-last in the Eastern Conference the last two years, tallying a combined 15 wins since 2015. Wednesday night’s win in San Jose saw them reach the 15-win mark this year alone. They are also just the second team to defeat the San Jose Earthquakes at Avaya Stadium this season.
“It’s a fantastic team accomplishment,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “I think if you want to be a successful club in Major League Soccer, it should be a bare minimum, every season, to make the playoffs. It’s a great feeling to make the playoffs on our own accord and not with other teams helping us out.
“For me, winning is a habit and you’ve got to make sure you continue good habits. This is only one of our goals, we need to push forward and achieve another goal.”
The Fire bounced back strong after suffering a 3-1 loss at Philadelphia last Saturday. They’re starting to kick into the right gear, winning three of their last five matches. They’ll need to keep the momentum going if they want to stay in fourth place with a Columbus Crew side that’s gone unbeaten in seven straight matches closing the gap between the two of them.
With the playoff clincher on the line Wednesday night, Chicago scored early and often, highlighted by Djordje Mihailovic’s first career MLS goal in the 14th minute and a second-half brace by Nemanja Nikolic.
Nikolic pushed his goal tally to 20 with the brace, tying him with Portland’s Diego Valeri in the Golden Boot race for the leading goal scorer in MLS.
“We make really, really good things, but the big things are coming,” Nikolic said. “Now playoffs, we have three games to practice and to achieve better positioning in the East, so we cannot be calm and relaxed these next three games. We want to be, as much as possible, high in the table.
“We have three more games. We want to be in the highest possible [playoff seed] in the table. And after that, starting the playoff competition, you need to be mentally, physically there. If you’re not there mentally, physically, you can go out. So, we need to prepare for that competition and I’m sure with this positive group we can make something really good.”
The Fire take on the current Eastern Conference second-place team New York City FC at home on Saturday with a chance to catch up to within a point of the Blues with a win. NYCFC defeated the Montreal Impact 1-0 Wednesday night to continue to hold onto the second seed in the East.