In the Chicago Fire's first season in 1998, the team won the MLS Cup. It then proceeded to qualify for the playoffs 10 of the next 11 seasons.

But in the most recent seven years, the Fire has made the playoffs just once, in 2012, capped off by finishing dead last in the league the past two seasons.

Unfortunately for Minnesota United, that perennial bottom-dweller isn't the team the Loons will encounter at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Toyota Park in suburban Chicago. Having executed a rather acute about-face in one offseason, Chicago is third in the league at 12-8-5. The Loons have taken up their customary residence in the basement at 6-14-4.

"[The Fire is] definitely the surprise of the year," as Loons winger Ethan Finlay put it.

Finlay already has faced Chicago twice this season with his former team, the Columbus Crew, even scoring against the Fire in the season opener. Finlay said the first key in breaking down Chicago is being aware of Bastian Schweinsteiger's ability to make plays from a deep-lying position.

Schweinsteiger, a World Cup winner with Germany, was one of several big additions Chicago has made in the past year or so. He makes $5.4 million as one of Chicago's three designated players, and the Fire's base salary totals about $12.3 million, which ranks fourth of 22 teams, according to MLS Players Union data.

The Loons are 20th at about $5 million, with no designated players (DP) on its roster this season.

Club leadership has repeatedly said its resources are devoted to building its soccer-specific stadium — the $200 million Allianz Field, set to open in 2019.

The Loons are looking into adding one or two designated players, typically big-name difference makers who exceed the maximum budget charge, for next season.

"Well, you spend $25 million and bring eight, nine players in, it's amazing what it can do to your team," Loons coach Adrian Heath said of Chicago's turnaround. "They're the harsh realities of it.

"In the last calendar year, what have they brought in? [Nemanja] Nikolic, Juninho, Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger, [Luis] Solignac, [Michael] de Leeuw, [Johan] Kappelhof. You can go on.

"Really good players, and they've used their money wisely, and that's the important thing because there's been a lot of money wasted in this league," Heath said.

"They've got a good team now, and I think it's given everybody a lift. The players look as though they're enjoying the football."

While Chicago has added a heap of talented players in the past year or so, one who has been around since the 2015 season has drawn the Loons' attention.

Forward David Accam, another DP, is a "game-changer" who can open up a match with his speed, according to veteran Loons midfielder Sam Cronin. Accam has scored 13 goals this year, just three behind fellow DP Nikolic, who ranks second in the league.

Chicago's transformation, while hard to go up against, does provide the Loons with a little hope.

"It gives us optimism. Obviously, we're struggling near the bottom of the table. And just in one offseason, you can change that quickly," said Cronin, acquired from Colorado Rapids after the Loons' dreadful start to the season.

"Chicago from last year to this year, that's not the first time that's happened. It's actually more common than you probably think. So there's a lot of reason for us to be optimistic but also to give us confidence to keep working.

"In this league, I've said it a lot, you're never as bad as you think you are," Cronin said. "You're never as good as you think you are, too, at times. We're a good team. We've had some poor performances, had some tough luck. And we've got to keep playing, keep working hard, making sure we're walking off the field proud at the end of the game despite the score line."