Fire

The Fire have clinched a playoff spot, now the fun begins

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The Fire have clinched a playoff spot, now the fun begins

When Toronto FC came to Toyota Park on Aug. 19 there was a big game atmosphere that hadn’t existed in Bridgeview for years, and certainly hadn’t existed since Veljko Paunovic took over as coach in 2016.

That game had some hype behind it as a potentially huge game in the Supporters’ Shield race. By the time Toronto came to town, the Fire had fallen back, losing four of the previous five games. Toronto’s 3-1 win was a decisive blow to the Fire’s chances of catching Toronto and the Reds are now on the verge of clinching the Shield.

What was significant about that game was the tension in the air and the fact that the crowd knew it was a big game. Saturday’s game against New York City FC (live on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live) is another big game with New York holding the crucial second spot, and the first-round bye that comes with it, in the Eastern Conference.

Whether or not the players and coaches of the Fire would admit it, they were likely feeling some pressure as the team lost six of seven games in July and August and later lost at a Philadelphia team that has been out of the playoff race for weeks. After the Fire clinched a playoff spot on Wednesday with a resounding win in San Jose, the pressure should be relieved. Entering the season, most Fire fans would have been happy to take a playoff berth, meaning the minimum standard has been achieved.

That’s what Dax McCarty said after the San Jose win: “I think if you want to be a successful club in Major League Soccer, it should be the bare minimum expectation every season to make the playoffs.”

So with the bare minimum out of the way, now it gets to the good stuff. Saturday’s game against NYCFC is a truly big game, something the club hasn’t experienced many of in recent years. The Toronto game was an early taste of a big game (and it showed how much better Toronto is than the Fire). Now, this is a game between two teams already headed to the playoffs and in a race for playoff seeding.

The Fire are four points behind NYCFC with three games left. Atlanta is a point ahead of the Fire and has four games remaining. Any chance of getting a first-round bye starts with a Fire win on Saturday. If New York wins, they clinch a top three seed.

Beyond seeding, the Fire also need to show they can beat Eastern Conference playoff teams. With the six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference appearing all wrapped up (barring a collapse by the New York Red Bulls), the Fire have a 2-6-2 record against those teams and an 0-5-1 mark on the road.

David Accam was rested for this game, not making the trip to San Jose, and Bastian Schweinsteiger could return. The German has missed the last four games, but was not listed on the injury report. Rushing back Schweinsteiger without training time in the past couple weeks could have long-term damage, but could also give the team a much-needed boost with one of the best teams in the league going to Toyota Park.

Let’s see what the Fire can do in a big game before the truly big games start in late October.

Chicago Fire vs. New York City FC

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (15-10-6, 51 points), NYCFC (16-8-7, 55 points)

Fire rumored to be connected to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas

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AP

Fire rumored to be connected to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas

They don’t call it silly season in Europe for nothing.

The offseason rumors that pop up and, in some cases, happen make for good entertainment around the world of soccer. Sometimes those rumors are connected to MLS, whether or not the chances of them coming to fruition are high.

The latest example of this is Steven Goff of the Washington Post tweeting out a juicy rumor involving the Chicago Fire and former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

Goff doesn’t sound very confident in it happening and there are plenty of reasons why, but there are also reasons why it could make sense. In this case, it makes sense for Casillas to be looking for a home to continue his career. When his contract at FC Porto expires at the end of this European season in June, he will be 37 years old.

It’s been two and a half years since he left Real Madrid, where he spent the rest of his career, and he’s not the elite goalkeeper he once was. If Casillas wants to keep playing he may not be able to stick at a Champions League club like Porto, and that’s where the MLS rumors come into play. It makes sense for Casillas to have interest in joining MLS.

On the Fire’s end, the team isn’t loaded at goalkeeper, although there are three keeprs under contract (Matt Lampson, Jorge Bava, Stefan Cleveland) with the possibility of a fourth (Richard Sanchez) also returning. The numbers logjam could be rectified without much problem if the Fire have a chance to snag Casillas.

His experience as a World Cup and Champions League winner (like Bastian Schweinsteiger), would be a nice addition to the team, regardless of age. Casillas was one of the best goalkeepers in the world and won Spain's La Liga five times and the Champions League three times in addition to winning the 2010 World Cup.

The question from the Fire’s perspective is if he could justify the high cost he would likely come with. Goalkeepers aren’t often highly paid players in MLS with the way the salary cap works. More flexibility has been added with more and more resources being given to teams from the league, but the cost of a player like Casillas may be difficult to justify at goalkeeper, even if he would provide another marketing and attendance boost like Schweinsteiger did.

This rumor makes for a good headline, but may not have much basis in reality. Still, there's a decent chance Casillas' name will continue to be connected with a move to MLS until he signs his next deal.

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

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USA TODAY

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

The MLS offseason doesn't take long to get in gear.

The Fire traded Arturo Alvarez earlier on Sunday, the same day which the list of protected players was to be announced ahead of Tuesday's expansion draft for Los Angeles FC.

LAFC will take five players in the expansion draft, which is set for 1 p.m. on Tuesday. A team can only lose one player. Each team can protect 11 players and homegrown players aren't eligible for selection. For the Fire that means Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic can't be taken.

The Fire protected David Accam, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho, Matt Polster, Richard Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luis Solignac and Brandon Vincent.

While Sanchez and Schweinsteiger are out of contract, the Fire have said they are negotiating with both players. Protecting Juninho is a bit of a surprise because it implies that the Fire have some intention of keeping him for next year, or at least keeping his rights to be traded.

The Fire left David Arshakyan, Jorge Bava, Brandt Bronico, Stefan Cleveland, Jorge Corrales, Michael de Leeuw, Christian Dean, Daniel Johnson and Matt Lampson unprotected. De Leeuw would be a worthwhile pickup for LA if it thinks he is worth it after his ACL tear suffered late in the season.

With only five players being selected it's fairly likely no Fire players are taken by LAFC, but it's arguable that de Leeuw will end up being one of the best five players available. The 31-year-old tied for the team lead with eight assists and scored three goals.