Among the most successful regular season campaigns in club history, the Chicago Fire’s 2017 season marked its 20th year in existence and featured international star power, a Golden Boot winner, an MLS All-Star Game in Chicago, and a long-awaited return to the postseason in head coach Veljko Paunovic’s second season at the helm.
The preseason hype was heavy for the 2017 version of the Fire, as general manager Nelson Rodriguez bolstered the squad with four heavyweight offseason signings. The first to arrive in Chicago were Serbian-born Hungarian international Nemanja Nikolic - a forward who had won league Golden Boot titles in three consecutive seasons at Hungary’s Videoton and Polish giant Legia Warsaw – as well as MLS veteran and three-time MLS Cup-winning midfielder Juninho on loan from Mexican club Tijuana. They were joined in January by U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Dax McCarty, who was acquired via a trade with the New York Red Bulls.
After a 1-1-1 start to the season in March, the season’s fourth – and highest-profile arrival – made his way to the Windy City. Bayern Munich legend and World Cup-winning ex-German National Team captain Bastian Schweinsteiger was signed from England’s Manchester United on March 20th to bolster a central midfield that would be among the league’s best. With little time to prepare for the club’s next match – a home date with the Montreal Impact on April 1 – Schweinsteiger got the start and scored his first MLS goal on a headed cross from David Accam in a 2-2 draw at Toyota Park.
The Fire then rattled off consecutive wins at home over Columbus and New England, before embarking on a murderer’s row of a three-match road trip that took them from Toronto to New York to Los Angeles as April came to a close and May began. The Fire only came home with a single point form the trip – following a 2-2 draw in LA on May 6 – but returned home to continue what became one of the most successful stretches the club has seen any of its 20 years.
The Fire welcomed reigning MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders FC to Toyota Park on Saturday, May 13, for a sold-out matchup to be nationally-televised on ESPN2. Nikolic opened scoring with a penalty kick that was quickly negated by a Clint Dempsey wonderstrike, as the teams entered halftime level at 1-1. The Fire second half response was emphatic. Accam got the lead back in the 60th minute, before Luis Solignac and Nikolic put the champions away for good in a 4-1 rout in front of the Toyota Park faithful.
That win marked the third in what could become a club record nine straight wins at Toyota Park that would run until mid-August. In fact, the Fire would lose just once overall over the course of the next two-and-a-half months, a 0-0 penalty kick shootout defeat in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 on the road at FC Cincinnati that saw them bow out of the tournament. However, beginning with the May 14th win against Seattle, the Fire would go 9-1-2 and ascend to the top of the both the Eastern Conference and the Supporters Shield Standings entering the league’s early July break for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The club entered it’s most difficult stretch when league play resumed on July 22nd with a trip to New York City FC. Injuries began to test the Fire backline and depth as the club endured a difficult August, losing six of seven matches before beginning to right the ship in September with a 1-0 win on the road in Montreal. Amid the turmoil – however – was a chance for the Fire and the city of Chicago to showcase themselves on-and-off the field as Soldier Field played host to the annual All-Star game, this year against Spanish giants Real Madrid. The Fire sent four players to the match – Schweinsteiger (who was voted captain), Nikolic, McCarty, and defender Johan Kappelhof – to bolster a side that was led by Paunovic and his staff. Regular time finished 1-1, thanks to an equalizer helped set up by the marauding play of McCarty in the midfield. Real Madrid ultimately won the match on penalties.
As the Fire’s Fall focus settled firmly on securing an Eastern Conference playoff berth, a jam-packed September saw the Fire go unbeaten in five of six matches, capping the month with a 3-1-2 record. The biggest win came in a midweek trip to San Jose on Sept. 27, where the Fire had the opportunity to formally lock up their spot in the 2017 postseason. Needing a full three points, the Fire executed to perfection in what became a historic night in the Bay Area. 18-year-old Homegrown product Djordje Mihailovic scored the opener, his first goal as a professional that gave the Fire an early lead in the 14th minute. Then, after forward Luis Solignac doubled the lead just before halftime, Nikolic made history. Entering the match level on a Fire single-season record 18 goals with Ring of Fire honoree Ante Razov, Nikolic emphatically took the honor for himself. The forward bagged his 19th and 20th goals of the season to help lead the Fire to a 4-1 and clinch a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.
The Fire capped their 2017 home campaign with a 3-2 win over Philadelphia on Oct. 15, a win that saw Nikolic net his first hat-trick of the season and push his season haul to 24 goals, a total that would stand up as the league’s best and give the Fire their first-ever MLS Golden Boot winner.
The Men In Red entered the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s third seed, and would host the sixth-seeded New York Red Bulls in the 2017 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout Round at Toyota Park. Playing without injured talisman Michael de Leeuw and with starting XI regulars Schweinsteiger, Accam, and Juninho not at 100%, the Fire ultimately bowed out in suffering a 4-0 defeat to the resurgent New York side.
In going from last place in the Eastern Conference in both 2015 and 2016, the Fire’s bounce back to finish third in the Supporters’ Shield standings was one of the league’s best stories in 2017. The club finished with 55 points (the fourth-highest regular season total in club history), scored 61 goals (third-most in club history) and won 12 matches at home, the most ever in a season at Toyota Park and the best haul since winning 13 at Soldier Field in 2000.
Nikolic’s Golden Boot campaign and the club’s four All-Star selections were among many individual highlights earned in 2017. McCarty returned to the U.S. National Team set up - helping them win the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the process - and played his 300th MLS match on Sept. 27 in San Jose. Forward Luis Solignac – in his fourth MLS season – set new MLS career highs in both goals (7) and assists (4) while playing his most-ever minutes (2153) in league play. Fullback Brandon Vincent became a key contributor on the left wing, scoring his first two professional goals in 2017 and adding a career-high five assists. In switching from midfield to right back, third-year player Matt Polster had his best season to date, scoring once and assisting seven times – among the league’s highest totals for a defender in the category. Last but certainly not least, Accam – the Fire’s team MVP and Golden Boot winner in both 2015 and 2016 – had his best year in MLS, scoring 14 times in league play and adding eight assists.