Fire

Fire look to extend shutout streak to set club record

Fire look to extend shutout streak to set club record

The Chicago Fire have a chance to set a defensive club record on Saturday.

After setting a new club record for most goals conceded in a season (58) just last season, it may be hard to believe it’s a positive defensive record the Fire are on the verge of setting.

Yet with 356 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal, the Fire are just 39 minutes away from the longest streak in club history (395 minutes).

That’s a far cry from the moment the streak started. When Orlando’s Cyle Larin scored just four minutes into the Fire’s second match of the season, the Fire looked more likely to challenge last year’s defensive record than go on a long shutout streak. When Larin scored the Fire had allowed five goals in 94 minutes, but nothing has gotten past goalkeeper Matt Lampson since.

“I think it’s been consistency from our whole team and team defending,” Lampson said. “There’s been a serious passion for not letting goals in and you can see it in every game. The effort that every guy, particularly in the back four has put in to not let the other team score. No shots, no crosses. That’s the reason why we’ve been so successful and hopefully as we continue to grow we’re going to maintain the same mentality.”

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It must be said that the Fire’s attack has gone into the tank the same time the defense has improved. That might not be completely coincidental. With David Accam injured coach Veljko Paunovic might be sending his team out slightly more conservatively in the hope of grinding out a low-scoring win.

However, the Fire are confident in the way they talk about this streak.

“I think it’s just individual accountability and taking pride in it,” Campbell said. “With everyone working to get back and doing their part in it, it makes it so much easier. Then the communication and everything falls into place, but with all the new guys having everyone work at the same rate and work to get back on defense it really helps collectively.”

After some shuffling in the first few matches, Paunovic has sent out the same defenders in front of Lampson for consecutive games. Rookie center back Jonathan Campbell has been paired with Johan Kappelhof, 20-year-old Brazilian Rodrigo Ramos has stepped in at right back and MLS veteran Michael Harrington has slid over to left back after starting at right back in the first two matches.

Those defenders, as well as Joao Meira and Brandon Vincent who have also received starts, and Lampson were all brought in during the offseason.

“We’ve all come in at the same time, we’ve all grown up together, we’ve all made mistakes together,” Lampson said. “Hopefully you want to make mistakes and win, but when that happens you’re going to grow and you’re going to be a successful defensive team and it starts from Gilberto (a forward) up top all the way down to me.”

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.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

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.