Fire

Fire enter season with more questions than answers

polster-slide-0304.png

Fire enter season with more questions than answers

The Major League Soccer season is just two days away, which means the season previews have been flowing in from various outlets.

As far as the Chicago Fire are concerned most of the attention has been paid to new coach Veljko Paunovic and for good reason.

Not only is Paunovic, along with general manager Nelson Rodriguez, trying to change the culture of the Fire, but it’s difficult to write about the roster in any substantive way due to all the unknowns around it.

Sure, it’s easy to rattle off a bunch of information about the names the Fire acquired and who figures to play a big role in the season. There could be an attempt to analyze each unit of the team, what they should be good at and what the weaknesses could be.

That would be one way to write about the upcoming Chicago Fire season, but in all honesty, that’s not very useful.

[MORE: Five questions for the Fire in 2016]

Any reasonable attempt at predicting the 2016 Fire season is a total shot in the dark at worst and a slightly educated guess at best. Outside of exhibition games in front of mostly empty stadiums - the lone exception being the preseason finale accompanied by the always bustling crowds of Portland - most Fire players have barely been tested in the team’s jersey.

Most of the Fire roster wasn’t with the club even three months ago. Almost all of it wasn’t with the club even 15 months ago.

That’s not to say the Fire can’t succeed with all that turnover and a new coaching staff. It just means no one knows what the team will look like. Even Rodriguez, who put this collage of a team together in a few short months, admits that.

“I don’t know yet because we know that we’re still looking for some pieces,” Rodriguez said on Monday. “Then even after you acquire them, it takes some time to see how it comes together. It’s part science, but in large part it’s also art.”

An undefeated preseason has left the Fire still in the honeymoon stage. This group hasn’t won an official game together, but it also hasn’t lost a game of any kind together.

“We haven’t been punched in the face yet, we haven’t lost four games in a row yet, we haven’t lost 4-0 yet, we haven’t had the media criticize us yet,” Rodriguez said. “The real test of that character is when we face genuine adversity, but for the moment we’re very pleased at how the character of the group has come together.”

[SHOP FIRE: Get your Fire gear here]

The preseason success likely helped reinforce what Paunovic was preaching to the players. That’s part of what makes Sunday’s game so important.

Obviously it’s always nice to start a season with a win, especially under a new coach. Failing to win the opener could make for an early hole with a game at a rocking Orlando crowd looming five days later, but winning would keep the positive vibes the team is feeling right now.

Watching this Fire team during practice a few times there is an undeniable excitement within the team. Few in the national or local media have picked the Fire to make the playoffs, but they don’t care what anyone says about them. They’re having fun.

“I think there’s been a lot of energy that’s been injected into the team and the organization from Pauno and his staff,” said goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who is the team’s longest tenured player. “It’s definitely a positive change for us and we’re adapting and trying our best to get up to speed before March 6.”

Paunovic and his staff have created a loose atmosphere. Paunovic and assistant Marko Mitrovic are young enough and good enough to be able to compete in some training drills.

Their desire to have fun with the group helps the players have fun. Paunovic doesn’t turn down a chance to show off with a fancy flick or flashy skill move when a ball comes to him casually or when the team is playing a monkey in the middle drill.

“We believe that they worked very hard during the preseason and they worked really well,” Paunovic said. “Right now I think that they are not only trying to do what we are asking of them or demanding. They are doing that and they want to do it and they believe. I think we achieved that so far by the games that we played in the preseason and how we performed and how they could feel that the system can work. Everything is on players in the end. Obviously we have to prepare them, we have to give them that support, we are there to serve them and in the same time guide them and demand them.”

If the team’s losing history in the past six seasons didn’t weigh so heavily on the minds of fans and media, there might be a genuine belief that something special is brewing under Paunovic. However, good vibes and fun atmospheres don’t win games alone.

There are so many unknowns about this team that the Fire could make the playoffs or finish last again and neither outcome would be overly surprising.

On Sunday everyone can start to find out what this team is.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

polster-217.jpg
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

schwein-not-playing.jpg
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.