Fire host NYCFC on Friday, seeking third consecutive win


Fire host NYCFC on Friday, seeking third consecutive win

Having gone nearly three weeks since their last competitive match, the Chicago Fire are on the verge of putting their 'mini preseason' behind them as Frank Yallop's side prepares for its first-ever clash against expansion side New York City FC (1-3-3; 6 points) Friday night at 7 p.m.

In front of what is expected to be a sell-out crowd at Toyota Park, the Men in Red are seeking their third consecutive victory, while Jason Kreis' contingent is working toward restoring a winning culture after going winless in their previous five matches.

Though unwelcome, the Fire have used the 20-day break perhaps as a trump card to address injury concerns with Matt Polster, Michael Stephens and Quincy Amarikwa, as well as to get Victor Perez and Jason Johnson acclimated to their new environment.

“The guys have trained very well in the three weeks we’ve had off,” Yallop said Wednesday. “We’ve put a lot of work in. I think it worked perfect, and the guys look fit and ready for this game."

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As Polster, Stephens and Amarikwa worked their way back into full training and in contention for selection on Friday night, NYCFC have been dealing with injury issues of their own.
Other than defender George John, who underwent knee surgery last July, five players did not participate in the club's 1-0 home loss to the Portland Timbers on April 19.

Among them, Designated Player signing David Villa has yet to train fully with the squad after coming off at halftime with a hamstring injury against the Philadelphia Union three days prior. Midfielder Mix Diskerud picked up an ankle injury before the Portland match, but Kreis is optimistic he will be available.

Meanwhile, Tony Taylor ruptured his ACL in the 35th minute of that match and is out for the season. Manchester City loanee Shay Facey (hip) trained fully, but flew back to England Wednesday night to deal with a personal family matter, thus rendering him unavailable for selection against the Fire. Defender Josh Williams (adductor strain) is doubtful, while Jason Hernandez (calf), who also didn't train Thursday, is ruled out.

Needless to say, injuries have unluckily dominated a sizable portion of the conversation before the two sides butt heads for the first time, yet Yallop was full of praise for Kreis' outfit despite their setbacks.

[MORE FIRE: Yallop stresses fitness during 20-day break from MLS play]

“They’ve had a year to prepare and they’ve got some good players on their books,” he said. “All of us just look at results and that’s what you get judged on, but I’ve seen them play and they’ve played well. They give up goals here and there, like every team does. We do.

“Whether their guys are injured or not, their squad is strong.”

For now, the Men in Red continue to focus on themselves, wary that any team can win at any time in MLS. Yallop, who emphasized that the Fire get on the front foot come Friday, said he doesn't expect anything different from their Eastern Conference opponent, who have yet to win on their travels.

"We know that we’ve got to be on top of our game," Yallop said. "We’ve had a big break. They’re going to come out trying to win the game, we’re going to come out and try to win at home. I see a game with two teams that aren’t going to sit back, that’s for sure. I’m looking forward to it.”

The pre-game narrative will certainly elevate the stakes. With both sides sitting on six points apiece in the East, the Men in Red, following back-to-back wins, have two games in hand. NYCFC haven't won since a 2-1 home-opening win over last year's MLS Cup finalist New England Revolution at Yankee Stadium on March 15.

Check out the video above to hear what Yallop and Shaun Maloney had to say after training on Thursday.  

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.

Fire add Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai on loan


Fire add Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai on loan

With the recent trade of David Accam and injuries to two players who logged key minutes last season, the Fire’s attack has looked significantly shorthanded since the start of the preseason. Help is on the way.

The Fire announced a loan move for Serbian midfielder Aleksander Katai on Tuesday. Katai joins from Spanish La Liga club Deportivo Alaves. The loan is through June 30, according to Alaves’ website, although the Fire have an option to buy at the end of the loan.

If the Fire continue to use a 4-2-3-1 formation, Katai can play all three attacking spots in support of Nemanja Nikolic. He typically plays at right wing. In addition to trading Accam, the Fire also traded winger Arturo Alvarez and will be without Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic until around July or August as those two recover from ACL tears.

The short-term loan should at least cover the time until those two start to return, but also allows the Fire some time to evaluate the player before spending a transfer fee to add him permanently.

Katai, whose 27th birthday coincides with the day of the move, played in Serbia and Greece before making the move to Alaves. He joined Alaves in August of 2016 and has made 30 appearances for the club, but just four appearances and no starts this season. A move to the Fire gives him a much better chance at regular playing time, hooks him up with Serbian coach Veljko Paunovic and could potentially increase his chances of making the Serbian World Cup roster. Katai has played six times for Serbia.

The high point of Katai’s career was taking the scoring crown of the Serbian Superliga with Red Star Belgrade in the 2015-16 season when he scored 21 goals. That prompted the move to Alaves the following season, but Katai only scored three goals in 20 La Liga matches that season.

The Fire likely still need more help in the attack or the team will have to trust some young talent to log heavy minutes. Even if Katai plays underneath Nikolic or moves Luis Solignac to that spot, Accam’s vacancy at left wing is still there unless second-year player Daniel Johnson can step in.

Katai will join the Fire in the middle of the preseason. The Fire already beat the University of South Florida, the Fire’s host through this portion of the preseason, 2-0 with goals from Nikolic and third-round pick Elliot Collier. The Fire’s next preseason game is Thursday against Accam’s new team, the Philadelphia Union.