With Dax McCarty away, Juninho seeks to prove his worth for Fire

With Dax McCarty away, Juninho seeks to prove his worth for Fire

Of all the Chicago Fire’s notable acquisitions in the offseason, midfielder Dax McCarty has arguably been the most important.

Goalkeeper Matt Lampson seems to think so.

“It’s amazing how invaluable he is,” Lampson said last week of McCarty. “To me, right now he is the most valuable player on our team because of what he brings, just in mentality and everything that he does every single game. He’s been fantastic for us.”

McCarty has played every minute of the Fire’s 13 games so far. That will change beginning with Sunday’s game at Orlando because McCarty is away with the national team, which is playing a friendly and two World Cup qualifiers before he is expected to return sometime after the June 10 game against Atlanta.

McCarty’s loss could be a big blow to the Fire, which have won four straight games.

“Dax is very important for our team, his leadership and his quality on the field, experience also,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “But also we know that everyone who is working behind and waiting for his opportunity was working hard and expecting to get minutes so whoever steps in we are confident that he is going to do well.”

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The task for Paunovic, as he put it, is to “find a way that the team works” without McCarty. When asked about who would replace McCarty in the lineup, Paunovic said he wouldn’t tell reporters that.

The most obvious option is Juninho. The Brazilian has started seven matches this season, but none of the last four due to a sprained ankle and the team being on a good run without him.

“I think the time out on the bench was part of the game,” Juninho said. “I’m a player so I have to respect who was doing a good job on the field. When I have to step up I have to show why I am here.”

Juninho has been training the past two weeks after being limited with the ankle sprain. He said he is hoping to play all 90 minutes on Sunday, something he hasn’t done since April 21.

“The coach didn’t decide yet the formation he’s going to use for this game against Orlando, but I have a big chance to be in the lineup,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for it. I was out for a sprained ankle and I was recovering all this time and tried to get minutes, as much minutes as possible. I hope I can be on the field on Sunday.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason


Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


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.