Facing defending MLS champ Seattle is 'a great motivation' for the Fire

Facing defending MLS champ Seattle is 'a great motivation' for the Fire

After going through a three-game road trip with one point, the Chicago Fire return to Toyota Park with the reigning MLS Cup champions awaiting them.

The Fire (3-3-3, 12 points) host the Seattle Sounders (2-3-4, 10 points) on Saturday at 8 p.m. It is an opportunity for the Fire to pick up a statement win against the defending champs, albeit the somewhat struggling defending champs, in front of a national TV audience.

“It will be nice to be back home,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We’ve won a couple games at home. Obviously if you want to be a playoff team you have to win your home games.”

The Fire are undefeated at home (3-0-1) and the Sounders have just one win in five road matches (1-2-2). Seattle is coming off a pair of disappointing games at home. First was a 3-3 draw against New England in which the Sounders trailed 3-0 after 70 minutes. Next was a 1-0 loss against a Toronto team which sat a few key starters, including former MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco.

Seattle actually has a worse record through nine matches than last year when the Sounders made a miraculous closing run to the regular season to get into the playoffs and then stayed hot in the postseason. The Sounders were 4-4-1 a year ago and then won just two of the next 12 matches.

Despite the Sounders’ inconsistency to begin 2017, the Fire are still looking at this match as a way to prove a point.

“The current champion, it’s always a great motivation,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “They are a fantastic team, a lot of good players, great coaching staff, culture. They have it all. We also believe that motivates a lot. We also believe that we are ready. We are very close to be the team that we want to be and we will work hard towards that goal.”

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“Seattle is a good team,” Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “They won last year. We know that. They have also very good players. They try to play so much as they can. They have a very good player with Clint Dempsey. We are looking forward to competing with them, but we are more focused on our game.”

Dempsey has three goals and an assist, showing that he is still a dangerous player after sitting out the latter half of 2016 due to an irregular heartbeat. Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro is still keying the attack with three goals and four assists. Former Fire left back Joevin Jones has emerged as one of the top attacking fullbacks in the league with five assists.

The match also marks a second return to Toyota Park for former Fire homegrown player Harry Shipp, who was traded by Montreal to Seattle in Shipp’s second trade is as many offseasons.

“Really talented from top to bottom,” McCarty said. “A lot of different ways they can hurt you. A lot of good attacking players and when their attacking players are clicking they’re one of the toughest to defend in the league.”

On the downside, Jordan Morris has just two goals after netting 12 in his rookie year. Seattle may miss both of its regular centerback pairing. Roman Torres (out with a hamstring injury) and Chad Marshall (questionable with a back injury) are both hurt.

For the Fire, midfielder Juninho is listed as questionable with a right ankle sprain. If he is unable to start that could move the Fire to a different formation. Potentially the Fire could lineup in a 4-4-2 with Michael de Leeuw pairing with Nemanja Nikolic at forward or Paunovic could elect to return to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Schweinsteiger sitting deeper and next to McCarty in midfield with de Leeuw playing underneath Nikolic.

Either way, the Fire are hoping to snap a three-game winless streak.

“We haven’t won in three games now and that’s unacceptable so we need to get back in the win column,” McCarty said.

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run


Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

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The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”

During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”