Fire

Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson believes he is 'vastly improved' from last year

Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson believes he is 'vastly improved' from last year

Matt Lampson is going through a bit of role reversal this year.

Last season, Lampson began the season as the Chicago Fire’s starting goalkeeper. Lampson took the spot even though longtime starting goalkeeper Sean Johnson was still on the roster. He started the first nine matches of the season, but made just two more starts in MLS play the rest of the way.

This year, things are reversed for Lampson. Johnson departed in the offseason, but the Fire brought in Jorge Bava and Bava made the first eight starts. Lampson waited for his chance and got it in the draw at LA on Saturday.

“I’ve been hoping for this the entire year,” Lampson said on Tuesday after training. “I came into the preseason vastly improved on last year, a lot more confidence and I was ready to go help the team win. That’s the number one thing is I’ve been really waiting for my opportunity to help the team win games and I’m glad that I finally got the opportunity.”

Lampson wasn’t credited with any saves, but wasn’t at fault for either of the goals he conceded in the 2-2 draw. The Fire led 2-0 at halftime and Lampson said it was the best first 45 minutes since coach Veljko Paunovic took over before last season.

Lampson said he focused on improving his footwork in the offseason, but it’s the mental side that has changed the most from a year ago.

“I’m not afraid to make mistakes anymore,” Lampson said. “Last year with Sean behind me I knew that there was a ton of pressure for him to play. At this point I’m just confident and I’m just out there playing.”

[MORE FIRE: After always being on dominant teams, Bastian Schweinsteiger is adjusting to the parity of MLS]

With goalkeepers, if you’re not starting, you’re not playing unless the starter gets hurt. Despite entering the season with newfound confidence and belief in his ability, Lampson began the year as the No. 2 goalkeeper and not able to get on the field at all. Lampson was frustrated he couldn’t show what he believes was improvement in his game.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Lampson said. “Everybody always wants to play, but definitely you have to take positives out of it and you have to be mentally strong and be ready for your opportunity when it comes. The number one thing that keeps me going is I’m out here everyday for 30 minutes plus after every practice just improving on things not necessarily to get on the field, but I know it will pay off in the long run when I do get my opportunity. I think that’s what’s happening now.”

Lampson said Paunovic told him the Monday before the LA game that he would be starting. After training on Tuesday, Lampson said Paunovic hadn’t said anything regarding who would get the start Saturday against Seattle.

As Paunovic has said countless times in his Fire tenure, competition for spots in training is something he wants to see. Speaking of Lampson and fellow first-time starter Drew Conner, Paunovic was pleased with how they showed.

“Drew and Matt did well in this game,” Paunovic said. “They deserved it first and they helped the team and that’s the mentality that we forged even last year. We continued doing the same things that we believe are helpful for the team. We also know that our squad improved. The competition on the team is higher than before and that’s what we wanted.”

The 27-year-old Lampson is hoping he can make his starting job stick after being unable to hold down the position last year.

“It felt awesome to get back out there,” Lampson said. “I feel significantly better than I did last year at this time. Hopefully we put a few wins together.”

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.