Fire

Fire move within one point of MLS' best record after beating Atlanta

Fire move within one point of MLS' best record after beating Atlanta

With each win the Chicago Fire continue to prove that this year’s team is among the league’s best.

The Fire added another win on Saturday, beating Atlanta United FC 2-0. It is the Fire’s sixth straight win at home, improved the team’s record at Toyota Park to 7-0-1 this season and extended the current unbeaten run to eight games.

It also was an important sign of improvement for the team after the Fire (8-3-4, 28 points) were crushed 4-0 at Atlanta (5-6-3, 18 points) back in March, the last game before Bastian Schweinsteiger joined the team.

Both teams had chances in the first half, but the Fire got the first breakthrough. David Accam got behind Atlanta’s defense on a long ball and dribbled around goalkeeper Alec Kann in a scramble situation. Atlanta’s defense got back in position, but Kann was still out of his goal. After a number of dekes and fakes, Accam finally found Luis Solignac, who scored into the open net in the 29th minute.

The Fire played on the counter with Atlanta controlling over 60 percent of the possession. Accam had a number of chances on the counter, but only converted with the assist to Solignac. Nemanja Nikolic also hit the post on a shot in the first half.

"I think we missed a little bit to score one more goal in the first half," Schweinsteiger said. "We had very good opportunities, unfortunately we couldn’t play it out well enough to maybe score a second in the first (half). In the second (half) I think we also had very good situations to score a goal. Other than that we are very pleased with three points."

The Fire added to the lead in the second half when a handball was called in the box following an Accam corner kick. Nemanja Nikolic padded his league-leading goal total (12) by converting the penalty.

The second goal seemed to be the backbreaker for Atlanta, which had been pressing for the equalizing goal, but didn’t create much after going down two goals. Schweinsteiger and coach Veljko Paunovic both admitted it wasn't a pretty win, but it ended up being a fairly comfortable win.

"It was hard, it wasn’t joga bonito, but it was a game to win, and we did,” Paunovic said. “It’s always important to keep the clean sheet and to be the team, especially when you play at home to feel like you’re playing in your fortress. I think right now we kind of have that feeling."

Atlanta started the match without two of its best players. Leading scorer Miguel Almiron came off the bench after playing for Paraguay in a friendly on Thursday. Josef Martinez also returned to action as a sub. The last time Martinez played was against the Fire in March, a game in which he scored two goals.

Dax McCarty was out for the Fire. The key midfielder has been one of the biggest reasons for the team's improvement this season. He is still with the U.S. national team. Juninho started in his place, his first start in over a month.

“The good thing about our roster this year is that we have options," Paunovic said. "We can play different systems, we can play with different formations, different players."

The Fire are now one point behind Toronto FC (8-2-5, 29 points) for the best record in Major League Soccer and have an eight-point cushion ahead of the playoff cutoff in the Eastern Conference. The team already has one more win than all of last year.

“We look good, we look solid, but this is not done," Paunovic said. "Like we always say, we don’t want to constrain now, but we have to be smart in managing the rest of the season."

On Wednesday, the Fire begin play in the U.S. Open Cup with a trip to Saint Louis FC.

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.