The Chicago Fire took a giant leap forward in 2017, and there’s no arguing that. The club entered as one of the league’s recent bottom-dwellers, one that had been facing a multi-year difficult period with no playoffs and no glory. What followed was a magnificent summer run and a return to the postseason, even if it ended earlier than the team expected in the most disappointing of ways.
After sputtering through the final few months of the seaosn, the Fire were unceremoniously bounced on home turf on Tuesday thanks to a 4-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls. It was a flat performance at the end of what was anything but a flat season, one which saw plenty of change finally take hold and push the team forward.
There are certainly things to iron out and improvements to be made if the Fire truly hope to rejoin the league’s elite but, according to Bastian Schweinsteiger, you can’t do that all at once.
“You need to give the team a little bit of time,” Schweinsteiger said. “It was a great success, achievement, what we did this season. I think you need to add maybe one or another piece. If you have 10 steps, I think we took seven, but eight, nine, 10 is the hardest step.
“If you do this, the eight, nine 10 steps, you can win titles. Toronto, for example, if you watch them the last three years, that’s an amazing example in my eyes, but you can do it in your own way.”
Tuesday went almost entirely the Red Bulls’ way. From the opening whistle, the visitors looked the better team, and the scoreboard reflected that early in the first half as individual mistakes cost the Fire a pair of goals.
First, there was a goalkeeping miscue from Matt Lampson, one which allowed Bradley Wright-Phillips to waltz in on goal and tap-in the game’s opener. Then, Tyler Adams put together a great cut and cross on the right side as Sacha Kljestan drifted in for a simple finish. Overall, the Fire failed to match the Red Bulls’ poise, and they paid for it.
By the time the Red Bulls fired their third in the second half, the match was well won, signaling the end of the Fire season.
“It wasn’t because of lack of preparation. We ran like hell today,” head coach Veljko Paunovic said. “It’s not because of lack of talent because we are proud of our guys. We are so happy with the talent we have and I’m proud of all of the guys for their effort for the whole season.”
“The better team won. It’s plain and simple,” added midfielder Dax McCarty. “I thought we got outplayed all over the field. That’s a team that’s battle tested in the playoffs now for five or six years. They’ve experienced a lot of hard games in the playoffs and we aren’t quite there yet.”
It takes time, and experience. The Fire, generally, had a rebuilt core centered around new faces and emerging youngsters. Players like Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent will get better. Veterans like Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Juninho will continue to contribute. Injured stars like Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic will heal up and bounce back next season.
The big question mark, though, is Schweinsteiger. The German star says he and the club are in talks when it comes to returning next season as his future with the club currently remains up in the air. Like any player, Schweinsteiger says his future isn’t decided and that he and the club have plenty to discuss.
But, overall, the midfielder was pleased with his 2017 experience and what he saw grow throughout the season. The Fire took a step forward in 2017, and Schweinsteiger believes there are still steps to come.
“Before the season, if someone told you the Chicago Fire would be third after 35 games, you would probably say no, that wouldn’t be the case,” Schweinsteiger said. “This team really worked hard and played a very good first half of the season. The coaching staff, Pauno, did a very good job and you have to give a lot of credit to those guys. I hope everyone understands that.”
“I know the goal was to be in the playoffs. We achieved that goal and that’s great. Here in America, it’s a little bit different at the end of the year, but you should not forget where we came from and that’s important that everyone understands that we did a very good job and every player here deserved a lot of credit. I hope people recognize that and let’s see.
“It was great to see the club change,” he added. “Let’s see next season if they team can stay the same. It would be great but it’s also different than in Europe where you have talks after the season. Everyone did a great job, not only the players and coaching staff but the whole club did a good job and you shouldn’t forget about that.”