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Fire cautiously optimistic about season, ending playoff drought

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic speaks to fans at this week's annual kickoff luncheon. (Photo: Chicago Fire)

General manager Nelson Rodriguez recalled the excitement he felt when the Fire finished the 2016 preseason unbeaten.

But that excitement proved to be unfounded. The Fire won only seven regular-season games and finished with a Major League Soccer-worst 31 points last season.

So after the Fire went 6-0 this preseason, Rodriguez tempered his enthusiasm. He is cautiously optimistic, though, because he thinks this team is better equipped to face a long season, which begins on the road Saturday against the Columbus Crew.

‘‘I think this group recognizes it is its own entity,’’ Rodriguez said at the Fire’s annual kickoff luncheon this week. ‘‘This team does not carry with it the burden of previous teams and recent results, and it has come together in a good way.’’

The Fire added midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho and forward Nemanja Nikolic to an attack that already featured Michael de Leeuw and David Accam. That group should enable the Fire to finish off more scoring chances than it did last season.

Still, the Fire’s struggles in 2016 taught Rodriguez about the perils of a schedule he knows will feature some rough patches. He hopes a positive start will validate what the Fire showed in their six exhibition victories and will ‘‘convert hope into belief.’’

Patience also will be a factor, Rodriguez said.

‘‘It’s going to take time, and time is a difficult thing to ask of our fans,’’ Rodriguez said. ‘‘Good teams come together over time.’’

Like Rodriguez, second-year coach Veljko Paunovic heads into the season with a renewed sense of confidence. But the proof will come over the long haul as the Fire look to return to the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2012.

‘‘The guys look pretty confident . . . but we want to stay on the ground,’’ Paunovic said. ‘‘We want to build expectation as the season starts and move forward.’’

McCarty, whom the Fire acquired in a winter trade with the New York Red Bulls, said the team has relied too heavily on Accam for scoring recently. But he thinks the Fire will be harder for foes to prepare for this season because of the ways they can attack offensively.

‘‘This is a team that should be confident that we can make the playoffs, and that’s what we’re going to try to do all season,’’ McCarty said.

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