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The Fire are the best team in MLS— thanks to João Meira

The 30-year-old defender is coming into his own during his second season in Chicago.

MLS: FC Dallas at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Major League Soccer announced that Chicago Fire players Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolic had been voted into the MLS All-Star Fan XI. Given that the two of them have been lighting up the league this season, they have, naturally, dominated all the discussion and hype surrounding the Fire’s worst-to-first turnaround in 2017.

Add to that the stellar seasons David Accam, Dax McCarty and Matt Polster are having, and it seems at times like there’s only five players in Chicago.

But the Fire’s success this season— which has landed them atop the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings— has been a team effort. And a crucial piece of the puzzle has been veteran centerback João Meira.

Meira, who has by-and-large been a journeyman throughout his career, is really coming into his own during his second season with the Fire. The Portuguese defender joins Brandon Vincent as the only Chicago player to have played in every minute of the Fire’s MLS season so far. Given that Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic has quality depth at centerback like Jonathan Campbell, Meira’s performances are clearly keeping him on the pitch.

But even at his age, #66 is showing no signs of slowing down.

During the 2016 season, Meira started 26 of his 28 appearances for the Fire, totaling 2,284 minutes. In a season defined by Chicago’s defensive frailty, Meira was a dependable and stalwart presence.

He completed a team high (minimum of three appearances) 85.1% of his passes. That’s even more impressive when you consider he averaged 37.1 passes per game, third most on the team. While it’s true that a lot of passes played by centerbacks aren’t necessarily difficult, and that Meira wasn’t tasked with leading the attack or creating goalscoring opportunities, that consistency is worth acknowledging. After all— central defenders generally don’t get much attention unless they’re screwing up.

And in 2017, Meira has managed to up his game.

With Paunovic’s up-tempo, high-pressing, possession-based system fully implemented this season, Meira has gone into Beast Mode. His passing accuracy is up four points from last season to 89.2%. That’s the best passing accuracy rating in the squad, and seventh best in all of MLS (minimum 900 minutes played).

Meira passes significantly more times per game this season as well. He is up to 49.4 passes per game and has one assist to his credit. And when he links up with Accam and Nikolic to stretch opposition defensive banks, his passing skillset goes on full display and more than justifies the hype.

Just take a look at this beauty of a pass to Polster, which quickly led to a goal:

And let’s not forget that he’s been a mainstay in MLS’ third-best defense this season. The Fire have allowed only 19 goals this season, and just seven during their 11-match unbeaten streak— a run that Meira has had an outsized role in maintaining.

Despite all of this, Meira has received very little recognition for his role in the team. He has earned Team of the Week honors only once this season, and his name gets drowned out in a Chicago soccer conversation that tends to focus on Basti, Niko and King David.

And that’s a damn shame, because he deserves a ton more credit. The bona fide superstars of Chicago soccer would be nothing without their teammates in supporting roles, and we’d all do well to remember the contributions of players who don’t have marquee names.

When we look back on the 2017 season, we should reflect upon it as that Chicago Fire team. We may spend the bulk of this year talking about Schweinsteiger, Accam and McCarty. But spare a few moments for João Meira— the rock upon which the Church of the Fire is being built.