Well, here we are. The Fire are currently sitting 3rd in the East, 2 points behind 1st place Columbus with a game in hand. Through 6 games, there are two major questions about this squad: 1) Is this sustainable? and 2) If so, how?
The next three away matches will be a huge key to answering those two questions. Chicago only managed 8 away points from a possible 51 last season, so the expectation for them to go on the road and perform well is fairly low. However, in order to keep pace in the East and solidify themselves as true contenders, they have to get results from these matches. Let's take a look ahead at the next three and build some reasonable expectations.
Away to Toronto, Friday 4/21.
Toronto is currently 9th in the East and have drawn four of their six games so far. While they have had a fair share of possession this season (50% or more in 5 of their 6 games), they have managed just 4.1 shots on goal per game, and if you remove the Atlanta game (Atlanta had a player sent off in the second half), their SOG/game drops to 3.2. Toronto FC prefers to attack down the wings, with their fullbacks pushing high up the pitch. In fact, Justin Morrow (left back) spends the majority of his matches in the opponents half of the field. That left side of their attack, coupled with Sebastian Giovinco up top, will provide a tough task for Michael Harrington and the back four. However, it's not all rosy for Toronto. They are susceptible to plenty of counter attacking chances, and they've also already blown three leads. If Chicago can stay organized at the back, and generate some decent counter attacking chances, there's no reason the Fire can't manage a point out of this match.
PREDICTION: Toronto 1 - 1 Chicago.
Away to Red Bulls, Saturday 4/29.
Although the Red Bulls have played one more match than the Fire, they currently sit a point below them in the table. However, New York is especially strong at home, taking 7 points from a possible 9 so far this season. What's more, over the last two seasons, the Red Bulls have secured 79 points at home from a possible 102 (a phenomenal 77.5% rate). They, like TFC, also control possession in their games. They've had 61% or more of the ball in 4 of their 6 matches in 2017. The Red Bulls biggest attacking threat has to be Bradley Wright-Phillips, who's scored 3 goals already and is averaging 3.4 shots per game. Along with US International Sacha Kljestan, who's added 3 assists while completing 74% of his passes, New York will be an extremely tough matchup for the Fire and it's likely 3 points dropped.
PREDICTION: New York 2 - 0 Chicago.
Away to Galaxy, Saturday 5/6.
The Galaxy are currently 8th in the West and have allowed 10 goals through 6 games. They've already lost two home games, which is more than they lost at home the entire 2016 season. LA also allow 11 shots per game, so the Fire should have plenty of chances offensively. It's obvious that LA isn't the team they were two seasons ago, but they still have some big names, namely Giovani dos Santos. They also just made an interesting move, bringing in 24-year-old forward Jack McInerney, who has scored 43 goals in across 168 career MLS games. It's a bit early to accurately predict how they'll use him, but it's definitely an intriguing move. Nathan Smith, the Galaxy right back, is the player the Fire will want to expose. He's arguably the weakest of their back four, and Accam's blistering pace should be enough to put the rookie on skates a few times. With this being the final game of the road trip, Fire should push a little harder and end it on a high note.
PREDICTION: LA 1 - 2 Chicago.
If these predictions come true, the Fire will have taken four points from a possible nine, and like it or not, that has to be considered a successful stretch. The club has the opportunity to capitalize on a very fast start and build on a ton of confidence. The team is gelling, the midfield is retaining possession, and the defense is holding together (2 straight clean sheets). Although the teams they'll be playing over the next 3 weeks aren't sitting at the top of the standings, it's still a very challenging stretch, and one in which Chicago can make a statement. Grabbing 4, 5, or dare we say, 6 points from these 3 matches would set up a huge primetime matchup back at Toyota Park with Seattle on May 13th. Let's hope we're talking about a team still at the top of the East.