Atlanta United doing it right, while Chicago Fire falters again

Updated 4/6/2018 11:55 AM

A middle-aged Atlanta United fan sat in a Michigan Avenue bar watching his new favorite team play on national TV, having traveled to Chicago to take his wife to see "Hamilton" the night before.

He wore an Atlanta United hat and bragged about how team ownership has done everything right, on and off the field. He boasted about the young, talented attacking players the Five Stripes paid big money to sign.

He marveled at how Atlanta United, in the heart of SEC football country, drew more than 72,000 fans to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He pointed out how those fans barely used their seats, preferring to cheer the home-opening 3-1 victory against D.C. United from their feet.

Just a season ago Atlanta United looked like it might become the first expansion team to win MLS Cup since the 1998 Chicago Fire. This year Atlanta United (3-1-0, 9 points) improved its roster for a better chance at a championship.

Last Saturday, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic sat in his postgame news conference looking relieved that his team had secured its first point of the season, a 2-2 draw against the winless Portland Timbers.

The last-place Fire (0-2-1, 1 point) announced a crowd of 13,678, a number that easily flunked the eye test.

Just a season ago, Paunovic and the Fire ended the club's playoff drought after four seasons. This year, for a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 2009, team general manager/president Nelson Rodriguez has termed the roster "incomplete." He hopes to rectify that when the transfer window opens July 10.

Meanwhile, the Fire's defense is a sieve, forcing aging superstar midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger into emergency service as a sweeper Saturday. The frustrated German exhorted his teammates to improve their play and shot them angry glances after errant passes.

There is no attacking central midfielder, a glaring need even last season. Nor is there a reliable second scoring option behind 2017 Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic since the off-season trade of David Accam. Injuries have further thinned the "incomplete" roster.

All of which prompted Paunovic to plead for patience.

"First of all, I want to send a message to our loving fans," Paunovic said. "Thank you for coming today especially after two, I want to say not appropriate or not good performances we had, and it was very helpful to see them coming and supporting the team again in a game where we struggled. …

"Also I want to send a message to our fans. It's the same actually what I said to our players. Get ready and prepare for a tough couple of months because we are far from the team that we were, and it's going to take some time to fix it. We have to stick together, and I want to make that clear.

"We have a good team but we are still not in the shape that this team used to play and that we showed in the past. The past is behind and what we have to do now is fix what we have in front of us and that's a difficult situation in terms of lack of confidence, lack of precision, and lack of clarity sometimes in ideas.

"But that's why we're here, and I promise that we're going to fix it and I promise that in a couple of months I'll make a different balance."

Two Major League Soccer franchises going different directions. One with a proud past growing more distant while asking for more patience from its dwindling fan base. The other having created an unlikely buzz throughout its city with the promise of another exciting season and expectations of more to come.

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