Fire

Fire prepare for 'game of the season' in Tuesday's Open Cup semifinal

Fire prepare for 'game of the season' in Tuesday's Open Cup semifinal

The Chicago Fire are falling out of reach in the Eastern Conference playoff race and haven’t been firmly in the race for a while.

That is why Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal in New England has taken on so much importance for the Fire.

The Fire’s season more or less rides on this game. A win means the Fire get to host the U.S. Open Cup final, which would be the biggest game the club has played in years. A loss means 2016 is likely going to go down as another lost year.

“Tomorrow’s game I see as a great opportunity for us, not only to advance to the final and have a possibility later to win it,” coach Veljko Paunovic said on Monday. “With that I believe it will in some way save our season so far. I also see it as a great catalyst for boosting our mood and our performance in the league. Of course we are far from the playoffs, but I think it can boost our mood and our performance if we win tomorrow.”

The Fire have already lost twice in New England this season. On May 14 the Revolution came out 2-0 winners and a recent clash on July 23 resulted in a 1-0 New England victory.

The Fire will have to change that trend, as well as the team’s winless road record, in order to advance to the final.

“It is very helpful that we played the last game against New England soon in the past,” Paunovic said. “The only thing we learned from that game is we have to be consistent until the end of the game.”

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The team practiced in Utah the morning after Saturday's 3-1 loss at Real Salt Lake, a match in which Paunovic rested key players. They also had an afternoon practice on Monday at Harvard's Ohiri Field after arriving in the area.

While the Fire may have been looking ahead to New England in the lead up to the RSL match, the focus can now fully shift to the Revolution and the cup. The players know the boost that extending this cup run and hosting a final could mean to the Fire’s rebuild.

“It’s a good way for the team to get used to winning ways, to winning cups,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “It’s always a good feeling so we’re looking forward to doing that here.”

Paunovic also emphasized the importance of Tuesday’s game.

“This game is the game of the season so far and we are very excited,” Paunovic said. “After the loss in Salt Lake I could see and feel the team is relieved and focused on the Open Cup semifinal game against New England and that’s what makes me feel good about the game tomorrow and also for me it’s a great excitement. I can’t wait for the game tomorrow.”

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.