On Wednesday, it displayed how to win without its star midfielder by blowing four goals past San Jose in a rousing 4-1 victory that clinched a playoff spot and officially ended a futile postseason quest that began with the 2013 season.
“If I’m not wrong, we clinched today,” said head coach Veljko Paunovic in his postgame comments. “So that’s the great achievement for the whole organization, the whole club. We are proud of our guys and very happy obviously, but we also know we can go and try to get the best possible position in our conference, which is our next goal.”
Chicago (15-10-6, 51 points) can still finish as high as second and avoid the Knockout Round, in which it will host a game by placing third or fourth.
Last year, during Paunovic’s first season as head coach, it labored home last in the Eastern Conference at 7-17-10. Under predecessor Frank Yallop, it had finished last in 2015 and second-to-last in 2014.
For his second go-round, Paunovic brought in established MLS veterans Dax McCarty and Juninho was well as foreign stars such as fellow Serbian Nemanja Nikolic and Schweinsteiger. He moved midfielder Matt Polster to right back and expanded the role of Luis Solignac, a former Rapid acquired midway through the 2016 season.
Propelled by Nikolic’s scoring and Schweinsteiger’s presence, Chicago raced through the first half of 2017 before hitting a snag. The momentum of a two-month, 11-game unbeaten run from early May to early July ran aground when the Fire lost six of seven and tumbled down the standings, but it has won three of its last five and Wednesday absolutely pulverized a team fighting to stay on the high side of the playoff line.
“It’s a fantastic team accomplishment,” said McCarty, who also marked his 300th regular-season MLS appearance. "I think if you want to be a successful club in Major League Soccer, it should be the bare minimum expectation every season is to make the playoffs and give yourself a chance."
The Fire took the field at Avaya Stadium with winger David Accam and Juninho also on the injured list, yet had no trouble splitting open and pulling apart the San Jose back line. Homegrown Player Djordje Mihailovic played alongside McCarty in central midfield and that pair plus Alvarez orchestrated passing sequences that created and exploited gaps and lanes in the Quakes’ defensive third of the field.
Mihailovic finished off a great sequence and feed from Polster to open the scoring, then earned a secondary assist by floating a ball to the right wing that Michael de Leeuw crossed for Solignac to head in from close range.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, but we’re just focused on playoffs right now,” said Mihailovic, who didn’t looked fazed making just his fourth professional start at age 18. “We clinched playoffs tonight and that’s what I’m looking forward to, more than the goal. It’s a team game and just can’t believe it right now.”
Nikolic added two more goals with a right-footed finish and a header, and is tied with Diego Valeri of Portland for the league lead. Along with clinching a playoff spot, Chicago won for the second time in its last three road games, reversing a four-game losing run away from home, where it is 11-2-2.
“I feel really happy and proud we achieved the playoffs with three games left in the season, it’s amazing,” said Nikolic, 29, who was acquired and signed to a DP contract in a transfer from Polish club Legia Warsaw last December and plays internationally for Hungary. “We want to be in the best position in the regular season, the most important thing is to play at home, Toyota Park, where we are really good.