Fire

Fire focusing on mental side in hopes of ending slide

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USA TODAY

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."

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

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AP

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.