Fire

Fire fall flat in U.S. Open Cup semifinal

Fire fall flat in U.S. Open Cup semifinal

Entering Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal at New England, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said it was the 'game of the season' for his team.

If that was the case, his line may have been fitting in a way he didn't intend. The 3-1 loss to the Revolution was a microcosm of the season in a number of ways.

The Fire struggled on the road in the cup like they have on the road in Major League Soccer this season. The Fire have lost nine in a row on the road in MLS and struggled on Tuesday just like in two road defeats at Gillette Stadium in league play.

New England took the lead via a Kei Kamara penalty kick in the 16th minute. Rodrigo Ramos tripped Kelyn Rowe just inside the box with the Revolution midfielder actually going away from goal.

The Fire’s hero, even if only for a short period, was yet again David Accam. Accam scored his fifth goal of this Open Cup in four matches to tie for the golden boot race in the competition. Michael de Leeuw slid to win a loose ball in the box and direct it to Accam. From there, the Ghanaian put some moves on in the box to get free and score from close range.

However, in a fitting summation of the Fire’s year, New England regained the lead two minutes after Accam’s goal. Kei Kamara headed a corner kick towards the goal, but it was blocked. Je-Vaughn Watson nodded in the loose ball in the 42nd minute.

The loss, which was the Fire’s fourth semifinal Open Cup loss in four years, will go down as a missed opportunity for the Fire. A win would have meant hosting the final and winning the cup would have marked a significant milestone in the turnaround of the club.

Instead, the same problems that have plagued the Fire all year showed up in the loss. The Fire started slow, struggled to keep possession, created few chances and were forced to scramble defensively. The Fire’s attack came to life a bit in the second half, mostly through Accam and John Goossens, but few times did they truly challenged goalkeeper Brad Knighton. Then Teal Bunbury sealed the deal with a long-range shot that tucked inside the far corner in the 85th minute.

Accam showed some of his frustration in a harsh challenge on Rowe in the final minutes. The two then got into a bickering match with some shoves involved. Accam got sent off, with Rowe receiving a yellow card, and kicked some of the sideboards on his way out.

The Fire now face a tough reality in the final two and a half months of the season. The team is now out of the cup and, with the worst record in MLS, playoff hopes remain slim. The final third of the season could end up being a tryout for 2017 with the Fire holding club options on most of the roster.

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.