Fire

Fire head to Yankee Stadium for big Eastern Conference clash

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Fire head to Yankee Stadium for big Eastern Conference clash

There’s no easing out of the break for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire return after having two and a half weeks between games to take on one of the top rivals in the Eastern Conference race. The Fire head to Yankee Stadium to take on New York City FC on Saturday.

The match will be televised on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

The Fire last played July 5 in Portland, taking time off while the Gold Cup group stage took place. Bastian Schweinsteiger missed that match with a hip injury that caused him to leave the previous match against Vancouver early, but he says he is ready to go in The Bronx.

“I was a little bit unlucky that I had this injury and I couldn’t play against Portland,” Schweinsteiger said. “If the game would be on a Saturday (three days after the match took place) I probably could play the game. The break was nice. It was good to recover. Not only for the body, but also for the head. Actually more for the head. I’m ready for the second part of the season. We have a good position in the standings, but it’s going to be more tough for us. I think other teams, they analyze us as well now. They play maybe in a different style against us so we have to find solutions and prepare ourselves.”

The Fire return from the break with a mostly clean bill of health. Defender Jonathan Campbell is listed as questionable with a right ankle injury.

New York City is in the middle of a crucial stretch for the race at the top of the conference. Toronto FC, which currently leads the league with 39 points, just earned a 2-2 draw in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. NYCFC is four points behind the Fire (11-3-5, 38 points) with a 10-6-4 record (34 points).

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic always hypes up the upcoming match, but wasn’t shy to speak of the extra importance of Saturday’s clash of playoff contenders.

“It’s everything, this game is everything,” Paunovic said. “We are now in a good spot. We have time to prepare. We have time to see them, but also we have to know that we have to work.”

Schweinsteiger called NYCFC one of the best teams in the league, along with Toronto. He also praised the style the team plays with under coach Patrick Vieira.

“I really appreciate how they play and how they behave also on the pitch,” Schweinsteiger said. “It’s going to be not an easy match for us away, but we are confident. We are confident. We are trying to find solutions to prepare ourselves during the week for that game and I’m very looking forward to play in Yankee Stadium. It’s a little bit different, it looks a little bit different when I saw it on TV, but I’m looking forward to this match.”

When set up for soccer, Yankee Stadium features a small field. The tight dimensions could make it tougher for the Fire’s preferred style of building out of the back with possession.

“You have to prepare for that,” Schweinsteiger said. “The pitch is smaller than, for example, let’s say I played in Barcelona in Nou Camp. It’s a huge field over there so it’s different. We have to know that and obviously we have to focus of course on our game, but also on the other team. They have David Villa, one of the best players in the league.”

Villa, who was voted into the All-Star Game as part of the Fan XI alongside Schweinsteiger and Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic, is second to Nikolic with 13 goals and also has seven assists.

Chicago Fire at New York City FC

Where: Yankee Stadium, New York

TV: CSN+

When: Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (11-3-5, 38 points), NYCFC (10-6-4, 34 points)

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 New York 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.