Fire

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

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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)

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”