BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The Chicago Fire got back in the win column in dominant fashion on Sunday. It was the team’s most lopsided win of the 2018 MLS season.
Here’s a look at the 4-0 win against Orlando, Michael de Leeuw’s return to the scoresheet and what the returning players like de Leeuw do for the team.
Michael de Leeuw’s goal
The 31-year-old Dutch forward was a big part of the Fire’s success in 2017. He has been working his way back from an ACL injury and looked at his best on Sunday.
De Leeuw assisted the Fire’s first goal, which came in the third minute and sparked the team. He later scored his first goal of the season. It was a trademark de Leeuw goal, a first-touch tap-in inside the box.
— Chicago Fire (@ChicagoFire) September 16, 2018
“It was just good to be fully back and to make my first goal and first assist of the season,” de Leeuw said. “It’s good to contribute like this so I feel pretty good.”
De Leeuw is effective pressing high and getting into dangerous spots in the attack. Getting him back to his 2017 form could be crucial for the Fire in 2019. His contract expires at the end of this season.
Paunović tinkers with the lineup again
The 4-2-3-1 formation has been the preference of Fire coach Veljko Paunović throughout his tenure with the club. On Sunday, he stuck with that, but also gave the lineup a different look by moving some players around.
For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger played left centerback. Schweinsteiger has played at the back at times this season, but more frequently that has come in a three-man back line. He played next to Johan Kappelhof in defense and the Fire earned their first MLS shutout since May 9.
In the attack de Leeuw started at left wing as opposed to a more typical central role. Homegrown midfielder Djordje Mihailovic made his third start of the season, but first in the central attacking role in a 4-2-3-1 formation. In his first start he played as a deeper midfielder. In the last match, Aug. 23 against Columbus, he and de Leeuw were the two supporting attackers to Nikolic in a 3-4-2-1 formation.
“They know our game, they know our style and they help us a lot,” Nikolic said of de Leeuw and Mihailovic. “They bring quality in our team and also we are more competitive inside the locker room for our spaces. So I think this also helps us.”
The winless streak is gone, what now?
Sunday’s game was a meeting between the bottom two teams in the Eastern Conference. The Fire won comfortably, which may have been as much about Orlando being poor as it was the Fire being good.
If nothing else, the win put smiles on the faces of players who endured an eight-match losing streak (and nine winless) before Sunday.
It likely won’t be this easy in any of the Fire’s six remaining matches. Three of those six are against the top six teams in the MLS standings (New York City FC, Atlanta, Los Angeles FC). The other three are against teams still in the playoff hunt (New England and D.C. twice).
Even if the Fire were to win out, it would take a big collapse for that to be enough to get into the playoffs. However, if the Fire play well, it could alter how the front office approaches the offseason entering 2019.