Fire

Fire: Polster, Yallop point up midfield depth ahead of clash vs. D.C.

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Fire: Polster, Yallop point up midfield depth ahead of clash vs. D.C.

Since signing on as Head Coach and Director of Soccer for the Chicago Fire on October 31, 2013, Frank Yallop's task of welding together a harmonious side - from back to front - has proved onerous. Between the incongruous collection of players left over from Frank Klopas' tenure and futile attempts to rake in enriching signings of his own in his first season, the end of 2014 precipitated Yallop's recourse to clean house, declining 2015 contract options on 11 players. 

Glowing from their 3-0 victory over the Montreal Impact - fueled by a lights-out performance from Kennedy Igboananike and the bright midfield pairing of Matt Polster and Razvan Cocis - the Men in Red are beginning to feel the effects of the booming depth in the center of the park, a refreshing constituent of Yallop's reconditioned team.

“It’s huge, especially since we have this stretch of game after game," Polster said. "If somebody does go down for an injury, I think we have the players to come in and perform at the same level.

“Honestly, I think anybody who comes into the midfield will perform as best as they can. We have the players to do it: like [Matt] Watson, [Michael] Stephens and Raz [Cocis], and [Chris] Ritter as well. We have a lot of midfielders and I think each one of them can do the job that’s needed.” 

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The Fire (4-5-2, 14 points) will have to rely on that depth as they face a quick turnaround Wednesday night for their first midweek fixture of the season against conference rival D.C. United (7-3-4, 25 points) at 6 p.m. CT on CSN+. 

One player the second-year head coach has regularly heaped praise on is Polster, a Southern Illinois-Edwardsville standout and the Fire's seventh overall selection in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.

Having grown accustomed to the playing style in Chicago and starting in all but one match this season, the soon-to-be 22-year-old has become the surprise package for the Men in Red and a bulwark in Yallop's midfield, which will be put to the test in the first of six matches in the month of June.

“Credit to him, he’s really settled in, listened to meself and the coaching staff, and we give him every confidence to be a very good player," Yallop added. "Whoever he plays with or whoever he’s around, it doesn’t really matter for Matt, he’s just doing that job very, very well. He’s settled in and his confidence is growing. I think he’s got a chance to go on all the way. He’s a really good kid, and I want him to do well."

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Following a series of matches that saw Ben Olsen's side scramble for points, the Eastern Conference leaders will play their sixth match in less than three weeks, while the Men in Red seek their first away win of the season and look to keep their unbeaten record against conference opponents alive in their first visit to RFK Stadium since last October.

A fixture with the club since 1997, Olsen has forged an effective playing style since superseding Curt Onalfo in 2010, imparting the tireless work ethic that served him well in his playing days to his current batch of talent. Yallop - chary of the attacking prowess of a side that will be without former Fire forward and D.C.'s leading scorer Chris Rolfe due to suspension - will stick to the blueprint that has helped his side to a three-match unbeaten run.

"They're a good side," Yallop said. "I know Benny [Olsen] well, he's a good coach. They're one of those gritty teams that just seem to - even if they're not playing particularly well - they get results. That's always a sign of a good team.

"It's going to be tough, but we've done okay this year against everybody. We're not afraid to go in there and play our game. Hopefully it's enough to get something out of the match."

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

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.