Fire go cross-country while Bastian Schweinsteiger's injury looms


Fire go cross-country while Bastian Schweinsteiger's injury looms

On Saturday the Fire played at Philadelphia, a team out of the playoff race with an average home record, and lost. Now the Fire head to San Jose, a team with plenty to play for and only one loss at home this year.

The Earthquakes are 8-1-5 at home this season and square on the playoff bubble with less than a month remaining in the regular season. San Jose (11-13-6, 39 points) is tied with Houston on points for the sixth and final playoff spot, but the Dynamo hold a game in hand.

The Fire play at San Jose Wednesday on CSN+ (channel finder) with coverage beginning at 9 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

Both teams played three times zones away from San Jose on Saturday. While the Fire lost at the Union, the Earthquakes got smoked 4-0 by D.C. United in RFK Stadium’s second to last MLS game.

The long travel on short rest makes the game tricky for both, but that’s not how Fire midfielder Dax McCarty sees it.

“I think it’s good to have a lot of games back-to-back,” McCarty said last week. “You want to continue to gain positive momentum. The more games you can play and the less you can train, the better the players feel.

“Obviously this is crunch time now. This is the most important part of the season where you want to have the right balance between getting guys games, getting guys fitness, making sure the results are there, but also making sure guys are getting rest because this is where you start to see heavy legs if you have a team that hasn’t rotated a lot. I think we’ve done a good job of getting young guys on the field, getting a lot of guys minutes and rotating.”

Much of the rotation within the Fire’s lineup recently has been due to injury. The team had three starters on defense come back from injury in the past four games and is currently without midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has missed the last three games, and Juninho, who has missed the last two games.

Juninho’s knee injury has kept him out yet again. Schweinsteiger was listed as questionable on the injury report. The Athletic’s Guillermo Rivera reported that Schweinsteiger will miss the game.

Schweinsteiger has had multiple minor injuries, which is why his status has been so unpredictable. He initially left the Aug. 16 game in Montreal due to a right thigh injury, but also had a nasty bruise on his calf on a hard foul. The calf injury was the primary reason he missed the next two games, but the thigh injury appears to have gotten worse and kept him from being at training in the leadup to the game at Philadelphia.

With a big game against New York City FC, which is in second place and four points ahead of the Fire, coming up on Saturday, the Fire will want Schweinsteiger back by then.

“Now, this is where you need your big players to step up and perform,” McCarty said. “Your leaders and your older players and your guys that are on the higher end of the salary spectrum. They have to step up and start to really prove their worth because this is the time of the season where it really counts and where it matters most so we’re going to need all that to fall in place for us if we’re going to have a special playoff run.”

Chicago Fire at San Jose Earthquakes

Where: Avaya Stadium (San Jose, Calif.)

TV: CSN + (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 9 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (14-10-6, 48 points), Earthquakes (11-13-6, 39 points)

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.