Fire finish undefeated preseason with win against Portland


Fire finish undefeated preseason with win against Portland

Wins in preseason don't ultimately mean anything, but wins of any kind for a team that finished last in the league a year ago are a welcome change.

The Chicago Fire beat the Portland Timbers 2-0 on Saturday night at Providence Park in Portland. The win wrapped up the Simple Invitational title and an undefeated preseason for the Fire.

Arturo Alvarez and Gilberto, two of the more prominent names in the Fire attack throughout the preseason, scored goals in the first half.

Portland, the reigning MLS Cup champions, had the run of play early in the first half, but Alvarez scored to put the Fire in front on the team's first good chance. In the 28th minute Michael Harrington whipped a cross in from the right that found the head of Alvarez, who scored with a glancing header.

Gilberto doubled the lead when an Alvarez free kick went into the penalty box. Gilberto eventually controlled it and nutmegged Portland goalkeeper Adam Kawarsey to double the lead.

[MORE: Section 8 doing its own work ahead of Fire home opener]

From a lineup standpoint, coach Veljko Paunovic chose what appeared to be close to a first choice lineup although David Accam and Sean Johnson sat out for the second straight match. Most interestingly was that three natural center backs, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Jonathan Campbell, all started.

The formation was still listed as a 4-2-3-1, but it more closely resembled a 3-5-2 or a 5-3-2. The three central defenders were flanked by Brandon Vincent and Harrington, but those two had more freedom to attack wide with the extra defender to cover. When the Fire needed to defend, which was the case for most of the match, Vincent and Harrington dropped back to form a five-man back line.

Both of the outside backs also created chances from the flanks. Harrington assisted on the first goal and Vincent had a shot go off the frame of the goal in the 51st minute.

Without getting too much into the specifics of the tactics, Saturday's match provided an example of the versatility Paunovic has repeatedly said is so important. Being able to change formations depending on the opponent and the situation in the match has been high on Paunovic's priority list from a philosophical standpoint. The Fire showed what he was talking about on Saturday.

[SHOP FIRE: Get your Fire gear here]

In a more general sense, the preseason was a success for the Fire. Not that wins and losses are meaningful in the preseason, but for a team that needs an identity and some confidence, going undefeated in the preseason can't hurt.

Next up is a regular season MLS match. The Fire take on New York City FC at Toyota Park on March 6 at 1 p.m. CT. The match will be televised on CSN Chicago.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


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


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.