Fire

Bliss talks 2016 roster outlook; CHIvNY start time pushed back

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Bliss talks 2016 roster outlook; CHIvNY start time pushed back

The issues are mounting for the Fire with the offseason around the corner.

After a second-half unraveling in the lopsided 4-0 loss at D.C. United, the task of righting the ship under the direction of interim coach Brian Bliss and Nelson Rodríguez, who began his tenure as general manager on Monday, is turning into an increasingly uphill battle. The performance was "the furthest from what we expected" in comparison to the respectable fight and grit on display during Bliss' first two games in charge in narrow losses at the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC in late September.

But the defeat at RFK Stadium was the heaviest of the Men in Red's troubled campaign by a considerable margin, having conceded four goals for the second time since experiencing a 4-3 setback to the Montreal Impact on Sept. 5.

As a result, the Fire (8-19-6, 30 points) became the seventh team in MLS history to finish the regular season without an away victory. 

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“That’s always the case when your team has not performed to the capabilities that you thought, and (when) you look at the whole season, inevitably there’s going to be change," Bliss said Tuesday via teleconference when asked whether Sunday's match would be the last for some players in a Fire uniform. "I would think some guys probably have pretty much close to played their last game. Which guys those are, those will still remain within the club until we can have the final discussion internally and communicate that to some of the players. But guys are pretty perceptive; they know sometimes when the end of the line is coming, that’s just the way it is. That’s something for an internal discussion.

"The words after the game on the bus before we pulled out were pretty much, ‘that’s not us,’ ‘unacceptable,’ ‘you’ve got to look at your own game and where you came up a little bit short,’ and ‘we’ve got to find a way to get back to where we were the previous games in terms of our mentality,’ because it wasn’t about ability, it was mentality. And I don’t think we had, for whatever reason, the right one going in, which was surprising based on the home game against New England.”

As he looks ahead to the regular season finale against Supporters' Shield-chasing New York Red Bulls (17-10-6, 57 points) and beyond, Bliss reiterated his vision of how many changes must occur to the roster for the club to be competitive come 2016.  

“A couple might be a bit too few, I would say," he added. "Again, I use the term ‘tweaking.’ I tend to think tweaking is more like three or four. When I use the term ‘overhaul,’ or any coach or technical director uses the term 'overhaul,' it usually means 8, 9, 10, or 11 changes. I still think it’s in the tweaking mode, which to me is three or four, of which probably three have to be starters.”

[RELATED: Fire Homegrown player Collin Fernandez building toward 2016]

Magee omitted from D.C. trip 

Limited to just three MLS starts and two appearances in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action because of injury, forward Mike Magee was excluded from the team's excursion to the nation's capital.   

“I think that was a little bit more his," Bliss said of the decision to leave Magee behind. "He came to me at the end of the week, and said he wanted to focus on health and strengthening, and I’ve got to respect that. I’ve got to deal with that as it comes, and that was near the end of the week of training."

Along with defender Ty Harden and midfielder Matt Watson, the 2013 MLS MVP will be out of contract next week. Should he opt to sign on for another season, Magee, who grossed $467,500 in guaranteed compensation this year, according to the MLS Players' Union, will likely have to take a sizable pay cut to remain with the club. The Chicago native had recently expressed his dissatisfaction with the handling of his recovery, but is not on his way out yet.   

“He hasn’t expressed any interest either way about staying or leaving in any conversations that I’ve had. I am aware at least going back to the end of June and early into July where he was disenchanted with some of the medical. I don’t know the exact timeline of events; I do know what happened in that window where he felt that some steps were missed, but I still believe that our doctors were on it, and were giving him the best medical care. That’s the only thing I can say, but I was aware of it, yes.”

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Chicago-New York start time pushed back

MLS confirmed Tuesday afternoon that Sunday's Eastern Conference showdown at Toyota Park between the Fire and Red Bulls will be pushed back from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. to allow both Supporters' Shield contenders to kick off simultaneously. FC Dallas hosts the San Jose Earthquakes at Toyota Stadium. 

"We created Decision Day to ensure that we have the most compelling and competitively-driven matches played simultaneously on the final day of our regular season," MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said in a statement. "Changing the time of the Fire-Red Bulls match fulfills our vision, and will provide an exciting finish to our Supporters' Shield race."

The game will be broadcast on CSN, with former Fire forward Brian McBride joining play-by-play commentator Dan Kelly as the color analyst, and will also be aired on ESPN3.

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.