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The Chicago Fire are good, but Toronto FC remain MLS’ team to beat

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Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger have inspired a faster ascent than anyone expected, but the Reds still have the edge.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

A few days after last year’s MLS Cup final, sportsbook Bovada released its odds for the 2017 championship.

It should be noted, briefly, that betting markets can be skewed by the popularity of certain teams. British bookmakers, for example, always list England at shorter odds than they should be for the World Cup because so many optimistic fans will put money on them regardless.

With that caveat stated, though, Bovada listed four frontrunners for the Cup: the LA Galaxy, the New York Red Bulls, New York City FC and the defending champion Seattle Sounders.

Toronto FC and FC Dallas were a little longer, but considered in the hunt at 11-1 and 12-1 respectively.

It was testament to the parity of MLS that 19 of its 22 clubs were rated at 33-1 or shorter. (To put that into perspective, the seventh-favourite for the new Premier League campaign, Everton, could be backed at 125-1. In La Liga, even Atletico Madrid are as long as 40-1 and Sevilla, who finished fourth last season, are 200-1 shots.)

The other three teams? Two - expansion sides Atlanta United and Minnesota United - were not listed. The third was the Chicago Fire, who were parked as no-hopers at 100-1.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

By the summer, Chicago led the MLS standings. The speed of their rise from bottom feeders to contenders has been remarkable, and on July 1 they ended Toronto’s lengthy run in first place by putting four goals past the Vancouver Whitecaps. It was their eighth win in nine games.

Bovada, you will not be surprised to learn, had changed its tune by then, making Chicago, Toronto and Dallas joint-favourites for the MLS Cup.

The Fire’s transformation has been powered by their designated players. Last season, they had traded Kennedy Igboananike and released Gilberto by the end of July, leaving David Accam as their only success story on DP money.

Sporting director Nelson Rodriguez did not rush to fill those slots, instead working out a deal to sign Nemanja Nikolic from Legia Warsaw soon after the season had ended and finalizing the blockbuster move for Bastian Schweinsteiger at the end of March.

His patience has been rewarded. Chicago have made other smart moves - the arrival of Dax McCarty the most significant of them - but Nikolic and Schweinsteiger have driven their turnaround. Nikolic has 16 goals in 24 games and Schweinsteiger has proven everyone who dubbed him another washed-up European veteran wrong.

As Chicago kept winning, everything seemed to be pointing towards a massive - and potentially Supporters’ Shield-defining - match when Toronto paid Toyota Park their first visit of the campaign, which falls this Saturday.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

But then things started going wrong. Just as dramatically as they had began racking up wins, the Fire hit a slump. They have won just one and lost four of their past six games, allowing New York City FC to become Toronto’s main challengers despite the Pigeons’ recent dismantling at BMO Field.

In truth, it was coming. There is no doubt that Chicago are a vastly improved team, but a couple of favourable factors had accelerated their rise to the top of the standings.

A key advantage was their ability to get the same lineup on the field on a consistent basis. Joao Meira and Brandon Vincent did not miss a minute through the first few months of the season, while Johan Kappelhof was rarely absent. Schweinsteiger and Nikolic were almost always picked.

To put that into context, Chicago have seven outfield players who have already logged 1,600 minutes or more this season. Toronto have just four.

They were able to do that thanks to the (in some ways related) combination of a forgiving schedule and a lack of player absences, but since the July international break Veljko Paunovic has not been so blessed.

The Fire were sent on the road - where, obscured by their excellent midseason form powered by six home wins, they have been mediocre at best - for their first ugly run away from Toyota Park. At the same time, there were murmurings about David Accam wanting out and injuries finally hit, taking out the likes of Vincent, Matt Polster and now Meira.

The results have been dreadful; after drawing 2-2 in Portland, Chicago dropped four away games in a row, shipping 11 goals. They only halted their slide by briefly returning home to beat the New England Revolution.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not the end of the world. The Fire remain third in MLS and six of their final 10 games will be on home turf. They are the league’s best home team and go into Saturday’s game on the back of 4-0, 4-0 and 4-1 wins in front of their own fans.

But it’s enough for us to say that while they’re good enough to get hot and go on a run - and that can take you a long way in MLS - they are not quite the team Toronto are just yet. If there is one positive to come out of the past few weeks for the Fire, it is that the club’s management has made it clear that they know that to be the case.

“When I look at [Toronto]... I say, 'We need time. We still need time,’” Rodriguez said earlier this week. “We still need to improve on what we do and how we do it. We still need to improve our roster, and we need our core group of guys to stay together for three, four years.”

It’s natural, really; Toronto have been on this path a couple of years longer and have been through more ups and downs as a result. You learn from those experiences, make adjustments and corrections where needed and get better.

Saturday’s game, nevertheless, will be billed as a big one and in the context of the Supporters’ Shield race, it is.

But while Chicago are a team heading in the right direction at a good pace, the suggestion that Toronto had been knocked off their perch as the team to beat in MLS is now looking premature.