Fire focusing on mental side in hopes of ending slide


Fire focusing on mental side in hopes of ending slide

As the rest of the soccer world closes in on final transfer moves on deadline day, MLS teams have already seen the transfer deadline come and pass.

While teams can still sign free agents until the roster freeze date of Sept. 15, like the Fire did with goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, whatever roster deficiencies teams have they are more or less stuck with through the rest of this season. For the Fire, a collection of players that once looked like one of the best teams in the league has shown plenty of warts in the last several weeks.

The Fire’s two summer additions, Sanchez and defender Christian Dean, have not yet had a positive effect. Sanchez, who was brought in after Jorge Bava went down for the season with elbow surgery, hasn’t made a matchday roster as even the No. 2 goalkeeper yet as he adjusts to the Fire’s system. Dean was brought in to add depth to a position that soon after went through emergency level injuries before Dean became part of the problem with his own injury. The Fire lost all three games Dean played and now he is expected to miss at least the rest of the regular season, if not any postseason run as well.

That means in order to stop the current slide, four straight losses and six out of seven, the Fire will have to look within to turn things around.

“It goes back to the daily work,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have to do our job everyday. We have to get sharp. We have to get strong fitness wise and all that helps so the mentality improves and the confidence, too. We are aware of the situation. The guys are working hard preparing for the next game, next opportunity to fix the things.”

This is where Paunovic seems to be most comfortable. The Serbian coach is always talking about forging a winning attitude and mentality. Now that’s the Fire’s only shot.

“It’s part of the job that I love the most because that’s when the coaches have to step in, take the lead and make the guys understand that they are actually a good team because we are,” Paunovic said. “It’s a part of the work that I love. I cannot say that I’m enjoying, I’m not saying that, but I’m saying that I love the challenge and I’m doing my best to fix the things.”

Just as striker Nemanja Nikolic said he is confident he will get things going again while he is in the middle of an eight-game goalless drought, some of the veteran players on the Fire are saying all the right things about seeing a turnaround happen soon. If the Fire’s slump endures much longer, the team’s once certain playoff spot will start to come into question as the Eastern Conference has proven to be the better of the two conferences in MLS and as the chasing teams are almost all playing well at the moment.

Scenarios like this are why general manager Nelson Rodriguez said it was so important to bring in proven players with winning pedigrees like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho in the offseason. McCarty is away with the U.S. national team for a pair of World Cup qualifiers and Schweinsteiger has shown more frustration with each defeat as he goes through the type of slump he hasn’t endured in his professional career.

“To be honest, we’ve been feeling very sad about it,” Juninho said. “That happens to every single team. You just have to maintain your group of guys ready to go when that type of things happens. I think our group of guys is ready to step forward and to step in in any situation. I think we can do good things in the future.”

Opposing teams have adapted to the Fire's style of play and have been able to punish them for not being able to adapt. Nikolic believes the Fire still have enough to win with this group though.

"It’s also the same team... who was the top on the table a couple of weeks before so we just need to put confidence back, to get that idea, to get that mentality that we had a couple of weeks before," Nikolic said. "The main thing is to believe in the work, in the coach, in the staff, in their idea and all together for sure we will win the games also and hopefully we will be in the playoffs."

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.