Fire
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."