Fire

Big playoff implications for Fire's game in Montreal

kappelhof-901.jpg
USA TODAY

Big playoff implications for Fire's game in Montreal

The list of players that won’t be playing in Saturday’s match between the Fire and the Montreal Impact could make for a pretty good team.

The Impact will be without six players who will be away for international duty and the Fire will be missing Dax McCarty for the same reason and are still shorthanded on defense due to injuries.

The timing of having so many players away for both teams coincides with the game having taken on greater significance due to recent results. Montreal (10-9-6, 36 points) had won four straight before dropping a home match to Toronto last weekend. The Fire (12-9-5, 41 points) have lost four in a row and six of seven and are now just five points ahead of the Impact and Montreal has a game in hand.

That means Saturday’s game (televised on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live) is a big one as far as getting into the playoffs. A loss for the Fire means the team’s playoff spot is very much up in the air. A win, or probably even a draw, will allow fans to take a deep breath for now. The Fire lost 3-0 in Montreal just over two weeks ago.

“There we make a couple of mistakes in the beginning of the game,” forward Nemanja Nikolic said. “They opened the game really good and after that we run just for the result. It was a really difficult game for us, now we need to be clever.”

The Impact will be without forward Anthony Jackson-Hamel (Canada), midfielders Blerim Dzemaili (Switzerland), Samuel Piette (Canada) and David Choiniere (Canada) and defenders Laurent Ciman (Belgium) and Shaun Francis (Jamaica). Ciman and Dzemaili are two of Montreal’s best players and Jackson-Hamel is second on the team with seven goals. Piette and Francis are recent acquisitions. Choiniere has been a rarely used sub.

McCarty is arguably the most important player on the Fire and the team’s defense is still going to be down at least three players. Joao Meira and Brandon Vincent will both be out though Matt Polster could return after rejoining the team in training this week. Polster has missed the last three games with a knee injury. Christian Dean’s injury last week against Minnesota means the Fire have two healthy center backs in Johan Kappelhof and Jonathan Campbell.

With all those players missing, things could be very different from the recent meeting. That said, Montreal is still a dangerous team with Ignacio Piatti (15 goals, 4 assists) in the attack.

“Both teams are in a different mood right now with different available players, us because of the injuries and they because of the players that are going with the national team,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “So we will see. It’s going to be a different game definitely. Last year we won there 3-0, this year they won 3-0 so we’ll see this one.

“It’s the opportunity to have a great game and finally recover all this great mood that we had in the past.”

The Fire have lost four straight on the road and given up 11 goals in those four games. The Fire sit fourth in the Eastern Conference and the three teams below in the standings all have at least one game in hand. The sense of urgency to get a result is real.

“We have to do better,” Juninho said. “We know them very well. We know what to expect. It’s going to be a good challenge for us as well. We have to go there and get points. In this time of the year you have to go get points the maximum you can.”

Chicago Fire at Montreal Impact

Where: Stade Saputo, Montreal

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (12-9-5, 41 points), Montreal (10-9-6, 36 points)

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

10-22_dynamo_matchup_mls_fire_blank.jpg

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

rodriguez-1020.jpg
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.