Over the last four months or so, we’ve seen the questions around the 2017 Chicago Fire evolve from “Can this team compete?” to “Oh man, is this team actually kind of good?”, then to “Maybe they’re really very good indeed?”, and finally to “Is this a potentially great team? Could it be the best Fire team ever?”
Any claimant to Fire greatness, at this point in our history, will have one true measuring stick: The greatest expansion-team success in sports history, the 1998 Chicago Fire, our all-conquering nutjobs from MLS’ Dark Ages, shootouts and short shorts and a countdown clock, oh my. The good news Fire supporters is that, on their current form, this year’s Fire don’t seem cowed by that measuring stick, and might just have the depth and quality to make themselves the new standard. And, in an interesting parallel, each vaulted themselves into contention with a patch of torrid form in the early- to mid-summer.
The ‘98 win streak
The 1998 Men in Red, after a couple of months getting all the players into form and familiar with each other, went on an 11-game winning streak that spanned seven glorious weeks, from a May 16 2-1 edging of (now-subsumed) Tampa Bay to a 1-0 knife-fight of a game on the road in Dallas on July 4. The streak included two wins over one of MLS best-ever sides (the ‘98 Galaxy, who set a still-standing PPG record of 2.16 and scored nearly 100 goals in the league), two five-goal outbursts (a 5-0 thrashing of Colorado and a 5-2 punchout of San Jose), and three wins against then-rival Dallas in the span of 17 days.
The streak is a ‘winning streak’ despite the fact that the fourth game, on the road in LA, was drawn 1-1 after 90 minutes and then won by the Fire in the shootout. Meaning that, had MLS used the world’s rules all along, this was really a 10-win, 1-draw unbeaten stretch for the Fire. But let’s not take anything away from the brutal asskickings Bob Bradley’s boys were handing out - between May 16 and July 4, the Fire took 31 of 33 points available. They scored 32 goals - 2.91 per game - and gave up only 8 - 0.73 per. This wasn’t a run of luck.
The 2017 unbeaten streak
This year’s team had issues similar to those of the expansion side, as essentially every truly influential player in the first XI was a new face - and like the expansion side, it took a few weeks for the squad to find their feet. A three-game road trip to Toronto, Red Bulls and Galaxy saw the Fire take only one point of nine, but that single point was in the final game in LA, a game the Men in Red dominated early then somehow lost control over. A cathartic 4-1 garroting of Seattle served notice that the Chicago of Basti and Dax and Niko intended to win now, and the results have kept pouring in as the players grow more familiar with one another and the league: 3-0 over Colorado, 1-0 DC on the road, 2-1 over a very good Dallas side, and on and on. The real showpiece wins have come lately, as the Fire piled up consecutive 4-0 knockouts over Orlando and Vancouver.
Going back to that Galaxy game on May 6, the Fire are 8-0-3 in MLS play, and have claimed 27 points out of 33 available. They’ve scored 26 goals in that stretch and given up just 7 while keeping six clean sheets.
Who’s the best? We wait and see
If we’re judging wholly by these 11-game isolations, then it’s difficult to imagine any modern MLS club putting up the kind of numbers the ‘98 team did. I mean, 31 out of 33 points? 32 goals in 11 games? That’s crazy stuff.
But there’s reason to believe this edition could go on to eclipse even the ‘98 group on the field. The Fire Originals were incredibly streaky - they’d lost five in a row immediately before their epic victory-march - while this year’s team has the advantage of a settled defense and a pair of very pragmatic geniuses in the center of midfield.
An even larger factor could be the calendar. Despite 1998 being a World Cup year, MLS played straight through the summer, which wound up costing Chicago as their best players grew exhausted and broke down physically. Talismanic midfielder Peter Nowak suffered a hamstring strain and then a knee problem, keeping him out for most of two months. Jerzy Prodbozny and Roman Kosecki also fell victim to hamstring problems, suggesting that the grinding fatigue of playing into midsummer was having an effect.
This year, we have started to see similar signs from this Fire side - Schweinsteiger’s small knocks growing larger and closer together, Accam’s twangy hamstrings complaining of overwork - but we have no similar congestion, because MLS now tries to build in some breaks for international play. The Men in Red were able to stagger through Wednesday’s game in Portland without severe mishap, and will now get a couple of weeks to get everyone rested and healthy again for the dog days of summer.