It has been a somewhat remarkable season of transformation for Chicago Fire.
Having finished rock bottom of the MLS in the 2016-17 campaign, scoring a meagre 31 points from 34 matches, the Fire have since stunned pundits by recovering in 2017/18 to clinch a place in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Late last month, Fire secured their spot in the MLS Playoffs with an emphatic 4-1 win against the San Jose Earthquakes, which is some achievement given the apparent lack of cohesion and spirit in the last two seasons (they finished at the foot of the Conference in both 2015 and 2016).
The arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger has given the Fire some much-needed stability in the middle of the park. Bastian could have been forgiven for seeking a respectable retirement home after departing Manchester United, but his contribution at both ends of the pitch has put Chicago firmly in contention to lift this year’s MLS Cup trophy.
BetStars doesn’t currently have odds on Fire’s chances of winning the title, but some other leading bookmakers have Veljko Paunovic’s men as short as 10/1 to joint-fourth favorites.
It’s been five long seasons since the Fire last qualified for the MLS Cup Playoffs, and it has been almost two decades since they last prevailed to win the MLS Cup itself. So, do Veljko Paunovic and his side have a genuine chance of winning two MLS Cup trophies in 20 years?
Although we have already waxed lyrical about the impact Bastian Schweinsteiger has had on the spine of the Fire team, it’s striker Nemanja Nikolic who has the power to shoot the Fire to victory in the upcoming Playoffs. The Hungarian front man is in line for the MLS Golden Boot after smashing in a hat-trick during an eventful 3-2 home victory over Philadelphia Union. With 24 MLS goals to his name — four clear of second-place David Villa — Nikolic looks to be in good shape to secure the Golden Boot in his inaugural season in MLS. He is no stranger to being the top scorer, having secured the Golden Boot on a hat-trick of occasions in Hungary, as well as in Poland before his $3m switch from Legia Warsaw in December 2016.
Nikolic is actually only three goals short of the MLS record set by Roy Lassiter in 1996, which was later equaled by Bradley Wright-Phillips in 2014. The Serbian-born front man is an outstanding leader, and he superbly defends from the front by putting pressure on opposition defences, helping the Fire’s midfield play the majority of the game in the attacking third.
This attacking intensity has helped mold Toyota Park into something of a fortress for the Fire. Paunovic’s side have lost just twice on home soil in the MLS since September 2016, and they will be hoping to give Illinois something to shout about at the end-of-season Playoffs.
The Fire could yet finish runners-up in the Eastern Conference if they can defeat Houston Dynamo in the last game of the normal campaign (while also hoping that New York City falters). A second-placed finish would see the Fire automatically qualify for the Final Series and avoid the need for them to qualify via the Playoffs. Soccer in Chicago really does have a feel-good factor once more.