Fire

Draw continues troubling trend for Fire

Draw continues troubling trend for Fire

The MLS playoffs are less than two months away and Saturday’s draw inched the Fire closer to the postseason. The question is how the team will do once it gets there.

With the 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls, the Fire hold a 2-6-2 record against the other five teams currently occupying playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. That’s only ahead of Columbus for the worst mark in that category among the six teams:

Toronto 5-1-3 (18 points)

New York City FC 5-2-2 (17 points)

Atlanta 4-3-1 (13 points)

Red Bulls 3-2-3 (12 points)

Fire 2-6-2 (8 points)

Crew 2-7-1 (7 points)

The draw also meant the Red Bulls took four points out of six in the season series. Toronto swept the Fire head-to-head and New York City FC also beat the Fire in the only meeting between the two teams this year. The Fire host NYCFC on Sept. 30, which is the last game against a conference playoff rival on the Fire’s schedule.

So is it a worrying sign for the Fire? Coach Veljko Paunovic chose to praise the point against the Red Bulls instead of complaining about failing to win at home against a team lower in the standings.

“This is a great point,” Paunovic said. “We played against one of the best teams in the league with huge experience, huge resources, great team on the field, sportsmen and everything. They push hard and we push hard. That’s what it is. That is what it’s going to take from now on. Every single game like this we have to play. We have to grind, we have to push, we have to give our best and the guys did that. Bravo them and fantastic, fantastic job from everyone. One point from this game means a lot. It can be decisive for the playoffs.”

Paunovic was as animated and fired up as he has shown in a press conference at home since he was hired before last season. He also convinced the team that the draw was a good result.

“I think we are the winners today,” said Michael de Leeuw, who assisted on the Fire’s goal. “We could have won the game, but at the end you see them pushing so at the end I think a 1-1 is the correct result. I think we’re happy with it.

“We knew also that we couldn’t lose this game because then with the game left for them they could have jumped over us. So for us it’s a great point.”

[RELATED: Nemanja Nikolic ends goal drought, but defers the credit]

The draw as an individual result isn’t bad, and it does at least keep the Red Bulls at bay in the standings. However, it was another chance for the Fire to show it can play with the best teams in the league. Home draws don’t exactly inspire confidence in that regard, especially now that the Fire have failed to win in three straight at home.

The good thing for the Fire, at least as far as the regular season is concerned, is that only two more playoff teams are on the remaining schedule. The finale is at Houston, which is undefeated at home. That should allow the Fire a good chance to fight a better seed.

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.