Fire hoping for payback against NYCFC


Fire hoping for payback against NYCFC

It’s just the fifth match of the Chicago Fire’s season, but a familiar opponent already awaits on Sunday.

New York City FC, which beat the Fire 4-3 in the first match of 2016 in Toyota Park, now hosts the Fire at Yankee Stadium.

Since that match the Fire have given up just one goal in three matches, a feat the club hadn’t produced since Aug. 2014, and haven’t lost (one win and two draws). On the other side, NYCFC came home for three matches and went winless (two draws and one loss). The Fire haven’t given up a goal in the past five halves of soccer while NYCFC has scored just one goal in its last five halves.

Given the recent turn of fortunes, the teams now have matching 1-1-2 records. The Fire are motivated to get even with the New York foes, and NYCFC is looking for its first win at home in four tries.

“There’s the mental aspect of losing to a team so you probably have to get some revenge and have a better game against them,” midfielder Michael Stephens said. “Knowing a few of their strengths and weaknesses and having experienced it already is helpful.”

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Another storyline from the Fire perspective is that a loss or draw in Yankee Stadium would doom the franchise to matching an MLS-record 27-game winless streak on the road. The New York Red Bulls franchise set that record in 2009.

That would be harsh on Paunovic, who is heading into his second road game as Fire coach, but he has been asked about the streak on multiple occasions.

“Playing and winning on the road is more difficult in this league,” Paunovic said. “(This) is something we are aware of, but we strongly believe that the best possible way to win the games on the road is to analyze the opponent, to prepare the best we can prepare from our standpoint.”

The Fire won’t have David Accam for the third straight match and goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who has been relegated to the No. 2 role so far this season, is still out with a wrist injury that has kept him from practicing between the posts the last two weeks.

For New York City, Frank Lampard will be out. Lampard hasn’t played yet this season.

[MORE: Veljko Paunovic's coaching tendencies starting to emerge]

As always, the smaller field at Yankee Stadium, which is listed at 110 x 70 yards while Toyota Park comes in at 120 x 75 yards, changes the game. Paunovic had the practice field at Toyota Park made smaller to help the team adapt.

Following back-to-back shutouts and the first win of the season, the Fire will likely be playing with more confidence. NYCFC should be feeling pretty good as well seeing the only team they’ve beat this season opposite them.

“I think we’re starting to get that belief in ourselves that we’re a different team than last year,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “We’re capable of actually going to New York this weekend and getting three points. Obviously we want to score more goals, but I think defensively we’ve been great. We just got to keep that up and take advantage of the opportunities up top.”

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason


Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.