Fire

Fire all-stars have plenty of ties to Real Madrid ahead of MLS All-Star Game

Fire all-stars have plenty of ties to Real Madrid ahead of MLS All-Star Game

Since switching away from the East vs. West format, the MLS All-Star Game has always walked the line between pure entertainment and something resembling a competitive game.

Powerhouse teams from Europe in the middle of their preseason have taken on the MLS All-Stars. While the European visitors aren’t yet going full speed while they gear up for the upcoming season, the MLS All-Stars have something to prove with the pride of their league on the line.

This year, Chicago gets to watch the MLS All-Stars take on Real Madrid, winner of the past two UEFA Champions League titles, Wednesday at Soldier Field.

There’s a strong Chicago Fire contingent on the MLS All-Stars with the Fire coaching staff leading a team that includes four Fire players, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and Dax McCarty. The group had its first training session together Monday at UIC.

“They are all very good players obviously, but also good persons and that makes it even more enjoyable,” Schweinsteiger said. “Of course you need a little bit of time to adjust to everyone to know exactly the passing and how the players want the ball. Every player you can see that is able to play soccer on the highest level and that’s what we need for Wednesday.”

While the players went through Fire coach Veljko Paunovic’s drills on Monday, it was clear training didn’t have the same feel to it as a regular training session for a club team would. The players are simply trying to get to know each other and trying to keep it loose as well.

“It’s fun,” Nikolic said. “It needs to be fun because I think we need to enjoy this moment, but also on the other hand in soccer you can not make the joke from these kind of games. You need to go hard, you need to give your maximum.”

Nikolic played Real Madrid twice in last season’s Champions League when he was still with Legia Warsaw. Nikolic’s Legia side lost in Madrid 5-1 before tying them 3-3 in Poland.

“It was a big experience for me to play in the Santiago Bernabeu,” Nikolic said. “I have a feeling at that time, that they are so good that in every single moment, when they want, they can score goals.”

Schweinsteiger, who is captaining the MLS All-Stars after winning a fan vote, has also had some clashes with Madrid over the years as a player for Bayern Munich. One of his former German national team teammates, Toni Kroos, is currently on Real Madrid.

“I always enjoyed playing against Real Madrid,” Schweinsteiger said. “They were always big matches and I’m looking forward (to the game) of course.”

Paunovic spent much of his playing career for Madrid’s local rival, Atletico Madrid. That rivalry has gained more of an international spotlight recently with the two Madrid clubs meeting in two Champions League finals in the past four years. Real Madrid won both of those, one in penalty kicks and one in extra time.

The ultra-competitive coach wouldn’t talk about the light-hearted aspect of the All-Star Game. He talked about Real Madrid like he will probably talk about the New England Revolution when the Fire turn their attention to that game, which will take place Saturday.

“For us, professionals, there are no exhibitions, no friendly games,” Paunovic said. “We always compete and the first thing that we are competing with is ourselves. When you’re on the field, when you feel the crowd, you feel you’re actually engaged 100 percent and you know you have to perform and you know you have to give your best. That’s the first challenge that you have to face. Then obviously you have an opponent like Real Madrid, there is no other team (like them). There are a lot of great teams in the world, but when you have the opportunity to play against Real Madrid, it’s an occasion that you just cannot let go.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

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

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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.