Chicago Fire's match vs. Atlanta will be indicative if they can hang with East's elite
That the Chicago Fire can be said to have struggled so far this season is, in a weird way, testament to the club's rapid improvement.
At this point last year, when the club was still in the midst of a lengthy postseason drought, merely hanging on the periphery of the playoff picture for a couple of months would have been considered a success. This franchise was in shambles as recently as 2016, when it lost 20 games and finished at the very bottom of the league standings.
Last summer's hot streak changed things. The Fire won eight of nine at one point as part of an 11-match unbeaten streak that stretched from mid-May into early July. The team slumped down the stretch and was soundly beaten by the New York Red Bulls in the knockout round of the MLS Cup playoffs, but still, they had given a glimpse of their lofty potential.
Seven games into the new season, they are still seeking to recapture it. Chicago enters Saturday's home match against Atlanta United (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+) with eight points, in seventh place but four points below the playoff cutoff line.
"It's been a little choppy," veteran midfielder Dax McCarty told ESPN FC in a phone interview. "The best word to use is 'inconsistent'. You'll have 15 minutes of dominance followed by 20 minutes of us not being very good on the field.
"It goes back to last year. We were almost unstoppable at one point last year, but as we got closer to the postseason, we started to lose momentum. I think some of that carried over."
They are probably fortunate even to be 2-3-2. Last weekend's 2-2 draw at Toronto required a furious second-half rally and stoppage-time heroics from new forward Alan Gordon.
Gordon's career path is fascinating; having played a leading role in The Beckham Experiment nearly 10 years ago as the personification of those struggling to make ends meet on the low end of the MLS pay scale, he's still out here scoring big goals at 36. It is not a coincidence that Gordon's acquisition in mid-March has helped raise this group's collective game. He has got the type of grit, and pragmatism, that Chicago has often lacked.
Last season's playoff berth was a little bit illusionary. The rebuild under sporting director Nelson Rodriguez, who took over in late 2015, and coach Veljko Paunovic was expected to take multiple years. Both of them admitted that last year's false peak was ahead of schedule.
They had torn the club down to its foundation, exposing the studs. For all of its immediate success in the late-'90s, when Chicago won MLS Cup in its inaugural season under Bob Bradley, it has been nearly a decade since it experienced any kind of sustained success. The Fire still have not won a single postseason game since 2009.
Rodriguez and Paunovic targeted strong voices with experience on winning teams, hardy vets like McCarty, Gordon and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Yet even with such leadership, changing the culture of a club is something that takes time, a process that cannot be rushed.
"Where we might have once been looked at as an easy win, now teams know that they need to be at their best in order to get a result," McCarty said. "We're still trying to get going. We're still trying to find our next, best level.
"Now, there's an expectation for us to be better. There's more urgency, when we lose, or don't get a good result, there's more urgency to immediately get better. There's just more accountability on every level. That's something I think the club lacked a little bit in years past."
Also keeping them accountable are the teams above them in the Eastern Conference. After a decade of Western Conference supremacy, the balance of power has shifted coasts. New York City FC and Atlanta look like the best two teams in the league. Columbus Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls look as capable as ever. Toronto currently sits bottom having prioritized the CONCACAF Champions League, but it is expected to rise quickly.
Saturday night's match in Bridgeview should give a good indication of whether or not the Fire can hang with the conference elite.
"We still have a very long way to go," McCarty said. "We are still not at the required level to be competitive in the Eastern Conference. ... But we have that capability. We have that in us. Each game, I can see improvement in some facet of our game."
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.