Chicago, Orlando have fallen to the bottom of the East after lofty expectations

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Looking from the vantage point of the middle of May, this weekend’s meeting between the Chicago Fire and Orlando City seemed like a potential playoff preview. Orlando was one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of seven in a row during one stretch. Chicago started more sluggishly, but it was at least treading water, and following a breakout 2017 season could reasonably dream of a midseason surge.

Less than four months later, Sunday’s match at Toyota Park is of interest only to the morbidly curious.8

If MLS had a relegation system, or if its draft were still a relevant talent-acquisition mechanism, there would at least be something other than pride at stake between the two bottom sides in the Eastern Conference. As it is, there’s little draw other than to gape at how it went so wrong for two teams that, in their own ways, at one point seemed to have plenty going for them.

Chicago is less than one calendar year removed from being a dark horse title contender. It had the league’s leading scorer in Nemanja Nikolic and a culture-changing DP in Bastian Schweinsteiger. It boasted what seemed to be a highly competent brain trust in general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Vejlko Paunovic.

A year on, the Fire haven’t won a game since June and were riding an eight-match losing streak before a recent home draw against Columbus. To Paunovic’s credit, he doesn’t go the route of many MLS coaches and blame injuries or bad luck for his team’s struggles.

“It’s ourselves,” he told ESPN FC in a phone interview. “We weren’t capable — and I consider myself part of that — of finding the right formula for consistency. … We had a huge step forward last year. This year, we couldn’t consolidate it.”

Paunovic described 2017 as two steps forward and said that, even if the club has remained stagnant in 2018, it is still ahead of where it stood in 2016. That’s a tempting narrative, but it’s also possible that last season was just an aberration for a club that has been a basement dweller for the bulk of this decade.