Fire

With big game against Toronto looming, Fire first face trip to Montreal

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With big game against Toronto looming, Fire first face trip to Montreal

The Chicago Fire stormed through May and June without a loss in MLS play, but things have not gone as well lately.

As a result of losing three of the last four games, the Fire have dropped to third in the Eastern Conference and the chasing back isn’t far behind. That’s why general manager Nelson Rodriguez emphasized the importance of Wednesday’s game in Montreal, even with league-leading Toronto visiting Toyota Park on Saturday.

“We can’t look at Toronto yet,” Rodriguez said. “We have to look at Montreal. We just have to. I have to harp on that. A victory in Montreal makes the Toronto game all that more important on a lot of levels.”

The Fire (12-6-5, 41 points) face an Impact (8-8-6, 30 points) team that has won two in a row. The game will be live on CSN with coverage beginning at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

After losing at Columbus a few days ago, the Fire had a short turnaround. The busy week, with Toronto still looming on Saturday, comes at a time when the Fire are trying to look like that team from May and June again.

“It’s been an interesting few weeks since the (Gold Cup) break,” Rodriguez said. “Admittedly, we have not regained the form that we took into the break and it’s been a whole new set of tests for us. Certain tests, like just playing quality opponents on the road, such as New York City and Sporting Kansas City, in the two immediate games after the break. Tests that I wouldn’t say we failed, but certainly we didn’t pass and showed that there’s still room for improvement on our end.”

Left back Brandon Vincent will miss a fifth straight game due to a quad injury. Joao Meira is also listed as questionable with a calf injury.

For Montreal, Ignacio Piatti has already established himself as one of the best players in the league. This season he has 10 goals and four assists, but the addition of Blerim Dzemaili has given the Impact another dangerous weapon in the attack. The Swiss international has six goals and five assists in 12 games.

Montreal has suffered three losses at home, but the Fire have lost three straight on the road. The Fire’s recent road struggles was another topic Rodriguez addressed at a media roundtable on Tuesday.

“I think they demonstrate something deeper, which is collective mentality and again I think, look we need to win some games on the road to change that and to improve upon that,” Rodriguez said. “I think it comes from time together, being in the fox hole, falling behind and winning a game on the road, pitching a shutout on the road if I could borrow a baseball phrase. I think we still view being on the road as being on the road as opposed to viewing it as an opportunity to play our way as we want, when we want, where we want, how we want, and so there needs to be some more collective mentality that goes into that. That’s an area that we have to improve upon, and if we don’t, and if we make the playoffs, it will be a short stay.”

Chicago Fire at Montreal Impact

Where: Stade Saputo, Montreal

TV: CSN

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (12-6-5, 41 points), Impact (8-8-6, 30 points)

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.