Fire

Fire look to extend unbeaten streak at New England on CSN

Fire look to extend unbeaten streak at New England on CSN

The perception of the Chicago Fire has changed drastically in the past three months.

The days of the Chicago Fire's road winless streak that endured from the end of 2014 through most of 2016 are gone and now the team enters a road game at New England with expectations of winning, and they aren't far-fetched.

The Fire visit the New England Revolution on Saturday hoping to extend a current eight-game unbeaten streak which includes Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup win at Saint Louis FC. Coverage begins on CSN at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

On this date last year the Fire had a 2-5-5 record and didn't show much sign of progress in Veljko Paunovic's first year. Now as a second-year coach, things have changed for Paunovic and the Fire (8-3-4, 28 points).

 

"We flipped the situation from the last year 180 (degrees)," Paunovic said last week. "Last year at this point we were probably second from the bottom and now we’re second from the top. That’s something that shouldn’t be casual and we shouldn’t take it for granted. Everyone contributes to that, especially the players, the whole organization and the club. Our fans who are great helping us here coming and we have every time when we play at home we feel like we have our fortress, our home. We are strong here. We just have to translate that when we play on the road. I think we are getting there. We are not changing our style when we play on the road and we can see that the other teams are respecting us. It’s the long work in progress and it’s very nice to see that there are some good performances.”

While Wednesday's win in Missouri against a minor league team isn't the greatest proof of the Fire's improvement on the road, the team is also unbeaten in three straight MLS road games.

New England, like the Fire and other teams in MLS, has a vastly better record at home as opposed to on the road. The Revolution (5-5-5, 20 points) are unbeaten at home (5-0-2) and winless on the road (0-5-3). The Fire are unbeaten at home (7-0-1) and have one win on the road (1-3-3). So while things have changed for the Fire this year, a draw would still be a positive result.

Both teams are coming off a win in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday. New England beat Rochester 3-0 and sat the likes of Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo and Kei Kamara while other key players in Diego Fagundez, Gershon Koffie and Kelyn Rowe came off the bench. The Fire played a lineup of mostly regulars at Saint Louis FC, including Dax McCarty in his return from the national team, but rested Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Accam, Nemanja Nikolic and Joao Meira.

These two teams already played this year in Schweinsteiger's third game in a Fire uniform. He scored and Nikolic had two goals in a 3-0 Fire win after New England suffered a red card in the first half.

"When we played against Atlanta (last week) we said that for us is the payback," Paunovic said on the Fire's website. "Now we believe that New England feels the same about us because of the way we won here."

There is one big name on the injury report for either team, New England midfielder Xavier Kouassi. The designated player will be out with a hamstring strain. The Fire will be without goalkeeper Jorge Bava, who hasn't started since April 29 and has elbow tendinitis.

Chicago Fire at New England Revolution

TV: CSN Chicago

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.

Records: Fire (8-3-4, 28 points), Revolution (5-5-5, 20 points)

With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

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USA TODAY

With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

Due to a calf injury, Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived at the training field later than the rest of his Fire teammates on a Tuesday in September. He sat down on a bench by himself and started singing a song in a foreign language.

It turned out to be a Serbian folk song he learned thanks to his wife, Serbian former tennis pro Anna Ivanovic.

During games Schweinsteiger is ultra competitive and always very serious. During practice and off the field, he is a bit of a goofball. Always cracking jokes and keeping things loose.

“I think that helps a lot because you see how he is on the field, he’s very serious, and he expects a lot of himself and of his teammates, but then off the field he’s very easy going,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said.

Schweinsteiger's return via a one-year deal was announced on Wednesday via reports from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and German outlet Bild. It's obviously a big deal for on-field reasons after Schweinsteiger helped revitalize the franchise in 2017. He also brings plenty of attention to the club in the form of fans from around the world and more media coverage of him and, by proxy, the team. However, his value goes beyond even that in a way that not everyone gets to see.

On the day he sang the Serbian folk song, Sept. 12, Schweinsteiger had missed the previous match due to the injury and was kept away from the training field that week. Even if he only stretched and jogged on that Tuesday, Schweinsteiger still seemed excited to return to the field.

He wasn’t able to play with his teammates so he turned to the few spectators, a few Fire staffers and myself, for his entertainment while he stretched in anticipation of his run. He asked each person their second favorite club team, the implication being the Fire would be the favorite team. Schweinsteiger said his was Partizan Belgrade “for family reasons,” another nod to Ivanovic.

“He’s got a really easy going, goofy demeanor about him,” McCarty said. “That helps the guys and that helps him relate to the guys.”

If Schweinsteiger isn’t the team’s class clown, it would be Matt Lampson. The goalkeeper is willing to make a joke out of just about anything. The two even sparred on an occasion after a training session.

In May, Lampson was being interviewed by two reporters and had his back to the training field. Schweinsteiger decided to kick balls at Lampson to distract him and hit him in the calf on the second try from about 20 yards away. As Lampson turned to see what happened, Schweinsteiger growled as a show of pride in his accomplishment.

Naturally, when it was Schweinsteiger’s turn to be interviewed, Lampson got even. He hit Schweinsteiger with a ball and the German stopped, yelled “Matt Lampson!” (sidenote: hearing Schweinsteiger’s German accent exclaim an Anglo name was very amusing) and then proceeded to blame Lampson in jest to the reporters for giving up two goals in the previous game.

“He certainly likes to have a good time and it’s nice that he doesn’t take himself too seriously because when you have a guy that’s won everything in the world of soccer it would be easy for him to be a prick,” Lampson said. “But he’s awesome. Not only when it comes to the locker room, but also just in terms of me learning from him. The time that he takes to teach and provide me with knowledge and the rest of the guys with knowledge is pretty remarkable of him because he doesn’t have to do that. He wants to win and he wants to help everybody else. He wants to help us become better players.”

As for who’s the team’s class clown?

“He’s a clown,” Lampson said. “I’ll let him have the title.”

Schweinsteiger has shown his willingness to be loose with the media as well, even though he did on one occasion after a loss decline to talk to reporters. He will give a thoughtful answer, but isn’t afraid to make fun of a question or joke with reporter.

As an in-season addition, his locker is at the end of the Fire locker room inside Toyota Park. Last season, his was next to Joao Meira. After one game Schweinsteiger, who is typically one of the first out of the shower, already had a crowd of reporters around him. The semi-circle crowd around Schweinsteiger meant Meira, who was in only his towel and shower sandals, couldn’t get to his locker. Schweinsteiger laughed and pointed to Meira’s locker and says, “Here’s your seat, Joao.”

It’s not all just laughs with Schweinsteiger. Another locker room occurence that stood out was when he decided to take control over reporter etiquette.

After Schweinsteiger’s first few matches with the Fire, the crowd of reporters was especially large. A woman reporter asked a question, but got talked over by another reporter. Schweinsteiger stopped and said “No, she was asking.” The woman laughed it off, called Schweinsteiger a gentleman, and then asked her question.

Schweinsteiger has also had some positive interactions with the women of the Chicago Red Stars. The Red Stars use the same training field as the Fire and take the field after the Fire leave so there is often some overlap for Fire players who stay a bit late or are slow to leave the field.

In June, Schweinsteiger stayed late after practice and the Red Stars had already started warming up. He decided to start playing with the Red Stars, kicking back and forth with Stephanie McCaffrey.

He would talk to some of the other players and stayed to watch the Red Stars practice, seemingly mesmerized by it. Later in the season, he was wearing a Red Stars jacket while signing a series of autographs for team giveaways.

Schweinsteiger’s presence will always be a big deal on the field and from a marketing perspective, but his personality with the team has shown on several occasions to also be valuable to the Fire.

“It helps, just charisma in the locker room and everywhere, it’s very helpful and it helps the other guys to be in a good mood just to feed from that energy that is coming from him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “It gives the team a default mood, a positive mood, everyday and that’s what you need to work. That’s what you need to live together and spend time together.”

Schweinsteiger is back for 2018. Let’s see what kind of amusing interactions he will provide this year.

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

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USA TODAY

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.