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.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

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AP

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.