Fire enter six-game road trip with momentum after Stojanovic’s winnerBrian Sandalowon August 16, 2021 at 12:01 am

If you needed a reminder of why the Fire finish the season with 11 of 15 games on the road, all you had to do Sunday was look at the Soldier Field grass.

And Luka Stojanovic gave the Fire more momentum heading into that defining stretch of the schedule.

A day after Justin Fields and the Bears beat the Dolphins on the same playing surface, the Fire got past the Columbus Crew 1-0 thanks to Stojanovic’s 77th-minute goal. Starting for the second straight game after not appearing in the first 11 since June 26, Stojanovic scored his team-leading sixth of the season, helping the Fire pull six points behind Montreal for the East’s final playoff spot in front of an announced crowd of 13,005.

“We see a big improvement in how the team works together, plays together, and that’s hard work and that’s mentality,” coach Raphael Wicky said after the Fire’s second consecutive win, and one that gave them 15 points since July 3.

For those watching, it was hard to forget about the other team that plays at Soldier Field. At midfield, the Bears’ orange, white and blue wishbone C logo was clearly visible, as were their markings in both end zones and much of the gridiron lines for an NFL field.

Optics aside, both teams were more concerned with how the field performed. The surface was clearly pockmarked – mostly between the NFL hash marks – but seemed to hold up well enough for the Fire.

“I think it was not so bad,” defender Boris Sekulic said. “I expected worse. We saw lines for football so that was a little bit weird, but when you play you’re concentrating on your game. I didn’t see a big difference.”

Wicky said “we’ve had better fields” but praised the facility for getting the surface ready in less than a day.

“They did a great job,” Wicky said. “It wasn’t even 24 hours to cut [the field] very short and try to fill the holes. We all know how a field looks after an NFL game.”

These issues aren’t a surprise to the Fire (5-9-5, 20 points), who signed up for this when they left the soccer-specific SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview. Perhaps a bigger challenge is the second-half schedule, which is weighted heavily toward road games to accommodate the Bears.

That factor means the Fire will have to make up ground predominantly on the road, somewhere they haven’t done well this year. Entering Wednesday’s game at Inter Miami that begins a six-game trip, the Fire have one point away from Soldier Field in six matches. Their last road win came at the end of the 2019 season at Orlando City.

Clearly, the Fire will have to be better on their upcoming trip to make something of the season.

“Tough task,” goalie Bobby Shuttleworth said. “It’s going to be difficult, but approach one game at a time and we know we’ve got to go on the road and get points to get back into this playoff race.”

NOTE: Midfielder Alvaro Medran is still in the health and safety protocol and missed his second straight match.

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