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Fire approach halfway point of 2015, face stern test in Sounders

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Fire approach halfway point of 2015, face stern test in Sounders

At the start of the MLS season, scoring woes left a beleaguered Chicago Fire brooding over the deep-seated issue as the likes of David Accam, and forwards Kennedy Igboananike, Guly do Prado and Jason Johnson struggled to leave an imprint on their new club.

On paper, the pool of offseason signings justifiably led many beholders, as well as head coach Frank Yallop, to believe last year's ninth place finish would be superseded by a fresh and redesigned vision in mind. Through 16 games, that vision hasn't exactly come to fruition quite yet.

Languishing in last place in the Eastern Conference, the Fire's scoring problem isn't a secret to many. Having bagged 18 league goals in 2015, the figure signifies the lowest total in the East despite averaging a league-leading 14.6 shots per game. 

"It's haunted us a little bit this season and giving up goals in the wrong times in games," Yallop said Thursday. "We've talked about it; we've worked on it, we've just got to maintain that."

While that hurdle has yet to be overcome, Yallop has another problem on his hands ahead of his team's cross-conference clash with Western Conference co-leaders Seattle Sounders FC Saturday at Toyota Park (7:30 p.m. on CSN).

[RELATED: As injuries pile up, Yallop mulls interest in transfer window]

"We're short a few guys, too," he added. "They have a good squad. It's always a tough game against Seattle; they're very well-coached. They've got a gritty demeanor to their team, so we've got to be ready to fight that and try to win at home, which, again, no matter who's playing for us, we want to to win. It's no different this game." 

Since forcefully dispatching the Montreal Impact, 3-0, the Men in Red dropped four league matches in a row before grabbing a well-earned point in a 1-1 draw with the Houston Dynamo last Friday. In that time frame, Accam and Joevin Jones were called in for international duty, the former emerging with a hamstring injury as a result. An MRI confirmed a bulging disc in Shaun Maloney's lower back. Captain Jeff Larentowicz was also ruled out through a herniated disc in his neck while Adaílton limped out of BBVA Compass Stadium with a groin strain in the 71st minute.

Ahead of Saturday's meeting, an injury-laden Sounders outfit - like the Fire - enters the match with absences of its own. Clint Dempsey (USA), Brad Evans (USA) and former Fire midfielder Marco Pappa (Guatemala) are participating in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in progress, while Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins continues his recovery from an adductor injury sustained June 17. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei will also be unavailable after suffering a sprained shoulder on Friday against D.C. United, leaving the seasoned Troy Perkins odds-on to get the nod from Sigi Schmid. 

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As for the Men in Red, Adaílton worked with fitness coach Adrian Lamb on Thursday, joined in training Friday as the team engaged in light, pre-match preparation, and will be put through a fitness test Saturday morning. Should the Brazilian not be able to go, Eric Gehrig and Matt Polster would be the preferred center back pairing. 

"We need bodies; we need good defenders and he's one of those guys," Yallop said of Adaílton. "Hopefully he'll be OK for at least some type of minutes maybe on the weekend, but for sure on Wednesday."

Accam, meanwhile, could get time as a substitute, but it's still "touch-and-go right now," according to Yallop. But despite setbacks to several of Yallop's top players, the resurgence of Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko will undoubtedly benefit a group of players eager to win its first MLS encounter with the Rave Green in nine previous attempts, as the Windy City meets the Emerald City in front of an expected sell-out crowd at Toyota Park.     

"I want us to be pushing on and pressurizing Seattle, it doesn't matter what our lineup is; it's irrelevant," Yallop said. "We've lost a couple in a row at home in the league and we don't want that to happen anymore. We want to put our line in the sand, and say 'No more.' We want to get a good result no matter how we play. We need to win this game, get our guys back healthy and we'll look better for the rest of the year."

The first 5,000 fans in attendance at Toyota Park will receive a Fire ballcap courtesy of The PrivateBank. The Fire will also be celebrating Chicago Soccer Heritage Night.  

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.