Fire

Bastian Schweinsteiger on Fire's skid: 'We have to show character'

Bastian Schweinsteiger on Fire's skid: 'We have to show character'

Despite losing three in a row, five of six and coming off the first home loss of the season, the mood isn’t one of panic around the Chicago Fire.

The general tone coming out of interviews after practice on Tuesday was that the team simply needs to stay on course and the results will turn around naturally.

“In a way we have to forget about the games which we lost, but on the other way we have to learn (from) it, to play some certain moments in a game better,” midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “I think we had, even in these games, we had some good parts in the game. But at the end we lost and that’s not a good feeling.

“Now it’s the moment where we have to show character and this team has character.”

The Fire’s 11-match unbeaten run from May to early July propelled the team to the top of the MLS standings, but things have turned drastically in the other direction since. The current losing streak has seen the Fire fall to third in the Eastern Conference while Toronto and New York City FC have racked up points and earned some separation as the top two teams in the league.

Midfielder Dax McCarty said the Fire are somewhere in between their hot streak and the current slump.

“Just like we weren’t the best team in the league when we were 11 games unbeaten, we’re not the worst team right now,” McCarty said. “We’re in a rough spell. I think it was always realistic to think we were going to have a spell like this in the middle of the season. You get injuries, you get call ups to the national team. You get a break, break up your rhythm, and, guess what, I think we’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes this year and I think we’ve garnered a little bit more respect around the league and so teams are starting to play us a little bit differently. Teams are starting to be a little clever about how they play us and what they do against us and now it’s on us to adjust.”

The sentiment that every team in MLS goes through a slump at some point is mostly true. Toronto opened the season winning just one of its first six, with four ties during that stretch. NYCFC had a run of one win in five matches in the middle of the season. Seattle currently leads the Western Conference after starting 2-5-4.

The Fire are now one of 10 teams in MLS to go on a three-game losing streak at some point this year, but the context of the three losses should make it more palatable for Fire fans. The three games were in an eight-day period when the Fire endured injuries to two starting defenders (Matt Polster and Joao Meira), when one (Brandon Vincent) was already out. Two of the losses were on the road to playoff contenders and the third was at home to the league leaders.

Realistically, the Fire won’t be able to catch Toronto, which is nine points ahead, and catching NYCFC, five points above the Fire, won’t be easy with nine games remaining. On the upside, three of the next four games are at Toyota Park and five of the final nine are against teams out of the playoffs currently.

The schedule offers the Fire an opportunity to go on another run, or at least to right the ship after enduring a tough stretch.

“We certainly need to move on, but we also need to learn from the games that we’ve played, the mistakes that we’ve made because, you know, this is crunch time,” McCarty said. “The season is getting down to the wire here now and I don’t think anything is guaranteed. We’re certainly not guaranteed to be in the playoffs and these are crucial games for us coming up.”

Coach Veljko Paunovic believes the wins will come as long as the team remains confident.

“Maybe other people can lose confidence in us, but we cannot lose it,” Paunovic said. “I think we did so much so far and we have good reasons to believe in ourselves. We have a great team, experienced team, we have a lot of youth, we have good results, 41 points. We are still at the top of the standings with other teams obviously and we have to fight for the first place. Obviously our main goal remains playoffs so in the last nine games we have to do our best to first assure that we secure the playoffs and then obviously we will look at other goals.”

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”