Fire

Fire host Ft. Lauderdale with eye on U.S. Open Cup semifinal spot

Fire host Ft. Lauderdale with eye on U.S. Open Cup semifinal spot

The U.S. Open Cup has become the priority for the Chicago Fire this season.

Coach Veljko Paunovic called Wednesday’s quarterfinal against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers a must-win and even rested players Saturday at FC Dallas to strengthen the team for this match.

“We all know how much we value this competition and it becomes a priority,” Paunovic said on Monday. “We will go with all our horses in this game against Ft. Lauderdale, who is a team that has proven that they can beat any MLS team. They did so far in Open Cup, two times, so full respect, full power against them.”

The quarterfinal will kickoff at 7:30 p.m. at Toyota Park and will be streamed live on chicago-fire.com.

The Strikers got this far in the competition by beating the Richmond Kickers and D.C. United in penalty kicks before beating Orlando City in extra time last round. That’s three wins with none of them coming in 90 minutes.

Ft. Lauderdale went 4-3-3 in the North American Soccer League’s first half, good for sixth place out of 11 teams, and is 0-3-1 in the fall season. Indy Eleven, the NASL team the Fire squeaked by in penalties in the Fire’s first Open Cup match this season, beat the Strikers 3-0 on July 13.

Former Fire players in Maicon Santos, the Strikers' leading scorer who spent part of 2013 with the Fire, and Victor Pineda, a former Fire homegrown, play for the Strikers. Maicon Santos will be out due to suspension after picking up a red card at Orlando.

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Off the field, the Strikers picked up some unwanted attention this season for paying players late on multiple occasions this season. The team’s Brazilian ownership group includes World Cup winner Ronaldo as a minority owner.

All this adds up to the Strikers not being a very imposing opponent on paper, but Paunovic insists the Fire will play a strong lineup despite being in the middle of a crowded stretch in the schedule. This match will be the Fire’s fourth in 12 days and trip to New England comes three days later.

“All our eyes are on this game and we want to prepare and win the game,” Paunovic said. “Then we will look forward of course. We know that we have New England right after, three days after, so we also know what we want to achieve in that game. Having this stretch it is important to recover well, having a plan where all the guys are important and have to be engaged. So far I think we are doing a good job with that and players understanding very well their roles.”

Paunovic indicated on Monday that Matt Lampson will start at goalkeeper. Lampson has started the previous two U.S. Open Cup matches. In addition, Joey Calistri, who missed Saturday’s loss at FC Dallas due to an ankle sprain, will not be ready to return on Wednesday.

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

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.