SAN JOSE, Calif. – Even as the Chicago Fire were in the midst of a classy 4-1 victory against the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday night to clinch a playoff berth and lay to rest questions brought up by their late-summer swoon, coach Veljko Paunovic’s squad was opening up new lines of inquiry.
Should 18-year-old midfielder Djordje Mihailovic see more time as the Fire try to chase down New York City FC and Atlanta United in the quest for a first-round playoff bye? Is recent signing Richard Sanchez, who made his MLS debut in beating the Quakes, putting pressure on incumbent goalkeeper Matt Lampson?
These are good problems to have, of course. And they will be worked out as the Fire complete their run-in towards the club’s first playoff appearance in five years.
“We have to play the last three games like never before,” Paunovic said as his players celebrated in a music-filled locker room at Avaya Stadium. “We don’t have the pressure of [qualifying for] the playoffs. We finally clinched and now it’s very important to take out all the talent that we have, put everything on the table and get the best possible position.”
The Fire’s clincher proved to be a momentous occasion for Mihailovic, who looked eminently comfortable playing alongside Dax McCarty in the center of Chicago’s rampant midfield. That feeling was enhanced in the 14th minute when Mihailovic sliced unnoticed behind the heart of San Jose’s defense and coolly sent Matt Polster’s unlocking delivery past San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell for his first career MLS goal.
“Today I felt the most confident out of all the games I’ve played,” said Mihailovic, who was making just his fourth league start. “It showed from the first pass in the first minute. I grew into the game and then I found the opportunity to score, and it worked.”
The Homegrown product followed up with a cross-field pass that helped cap the buildup for Chicago’s second goal, a bounced header from Luis Solignac in the 40th minute.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling right now, but I’m just focused on the playoffs,” Mihailovic said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to, more than the goal.”
Mihailovic’s opportunity came about in part because of the absence of injured Bastian Schweinsteiger, who didn’t make the trip to San Jose. While it’s hard to see the rookie playing over the German legend when he’s healthy, Mihailovic’s success means the Fire can give the 33-year-old Schweinsteiger more latitude in his recovery.
“Djordje, this season, he was progressively getting opportunities,” Paunovic said. “Every time he deserved it and every time he was ready. And today, I still think he’s going to do much better, but today I’m very, very happy for him, that he not only scored a goal but he performed one of the best games he’s played so far.”
For Sanchez, Wednesday represented a chance to get his feet wet with his new club. The former Mexican youth international and FC Dallas academy product was given the start as Chicago faced a stretch of three matches in eight days. Sanchez responded with eight saves and only saw his bid for a clean sheet broken up by San Jose captain Chris Wondolowski in the 87th minute.
“We have our plan. We proceeded with our plan,” Paunovic said. “We prepared for this game and Sanchez knew that he was going to play so he could prepare well. We are absolutely confident that Lampson has done a fantastic job so far, and Lampson is going to play the next games. Saturday he’s going to be back available and that’s it.
“But everyone has to earn his spot, everyone has to be ready, and these kind of opportunities for the players who played today, like Djordje, like Sanchez, like [Brandt] Bronico and other players who are not in the starting lineup usually, it’s a great opportunity.”
Geoff Lepper is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.