- The Chicago Fire won away from home for the first time in more than two years, showing signs of revival; Toronto FC, NYCFC, Seattle Sounders all net important results.
Even for a league with as much instability as MLS, it’s amazing to look at the Eastern Conference table this week and realize that, yes, the Chicago Fire may actually be a relevant team as the season rolls into its final stage.
The struggles of Vejlko Paunovic’s side were apparent through most of the season, as the team labored to get results of any kind while sinking to the foot of MLS’s overall standings. Then, in true MLS fashion, everything seemed to change in an instant. The Fire looked completely dominant on Saturday, getting a 3-0 win at Montreal with goals from new addition Luis Solignac, a goal-line redirection from David Accam (via Arturo Alvarez), and a capper from defender Matt Polster.
The result in the context of this season alone is surprising and worthy of conversation. But even from a much wider angle, this was a notable victory—it’s the first away win for Chicago since it beat the New England Revolution 1-0 on July 12, 2014. That’s right, the Fire hadn’t won an away match in over two years.
Looking at the rosters from that match at Gillette Stadium 772 days ago, it becomes clear not just why the Fire have struggled and are only just now starting to show signs of life, but also why the New England Revolution have sunk farther and farther into the bottom half of MLS since their run to the MLS Cup final later that same year.
Of the 18 players on Chicago’s gameday roster for that 2014 win, only one (!) made a repeat appearance on Saturday, and that is goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Even in a league with as much fluctuation as MLS, having that much roster turnover makes it that much harder for the team to build an identity, or a style of play on which to fall back when trying to grind out results in uncomfortable situations. Paunovic has had his struggles so far in his first year as an MLS coach, but it does seem like the Fire are at least trying to build something now.
For the Revolution, the problem is almost entirely the opposite. Twelve of the Revolution’s 18-player gameday squad remain on the team as of this week’s 2-0 loss to the Columbus crew, including five of the starting 11. And that’s not counting Lee Nguyen, who was a key piece on the 2014 Revs but didn’t play in the Fire’s win back then.
While the Fire have rebuilt from scratch, the Revolution have hardly changed at all, instead opting for targeted fixes at specific positions instead of a natural, team-wise evolution. The team won Jermaine Jones (Ironically enough, over the Fire) in a blind draw, and he helped them salvage the team’s disappointing 2015 campaign. After 2016 got off to a rocky start, the Revs traded a heap of assets for Columbus’ DP striker Kei Kamara–an acquisition that hasn’t worked out nearly as well so far.
This difference, between building and standing pat, is a big reason why it’s easy to be far more confident in the Fire than the Revolution at this point in the season. Despite all their struggles, the Fire are only six points out of a playoff spot in the East with at least one game in hand over everybody around them. They have an interesting mix of young players and imports that are finally beginning to learn what it takes to get results in MLS. They have a young coach willing to challenge them in ways they haven’t been challenged over the previous two years.
The Revs, meanwhile, are wearing the year before last’s style to this year’s ball. They’ve been figured out, and after four straight losses it seems like they’re all out of ideas on how to figure out things for themselves.
Offensive player of the week: Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders
Roldan came to Seattle with big expectations, and the second-year midfielder is finally starting to fulfill them. Roldan was brilliant in Seattle’s 3-1 Cascadia Cup win over the Portland Timbers on Sunday, putting Clint Dempsey in a great position to double the Sounders’ lead in the second half:
Then scoring this sharp, opportunistic header to put the result beyond doubt:
Defensive player of the week: Ronald Matarrita, NYCFC
New York City FC continued its second-half surge with an impressive win over the LA Galaxy on Saturday, and Matarrita’s relentless energy on the left side of defense was a big reason why. Matarrita made an impact early, playing an integral part in David Villa’s opening goal, then shut down the right side of the Galaxy attack for the remainder of NYCFC’s 1-0 win.