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.”

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.