Fire prepares for seven-match stretch vs. Eastern Conference


Fire prepares for seven-match stretch vs. Eastern Conference

As the Chicago Fire prepares for its first trip to Yankee Stadium to face New York City FC for the second time in three weeks, Frank Yallop and his technical staff are still in the process of mending the team's offensive struggles, which materialized in the 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake.

Friday night's match in the Big Apple, however, will commence a run of seven matches - all against Eastern Conference opponents - spanning a 41-day period that will serve as the barometer in determining where the Men in Red stand come July.

Yallop addressed the media in his weekly conference call Monday morning following the team's training session, underscoring the importance of amending the away form while providing additional updates on other news tidbits surfacing inside the Fire camp.

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Mike Magee nearing return

"Mike trained today," Yallop said. "It was his first day with the team. He's worked very hard to get to this point, so the progression is getting through this week with probably non-contact stuff, but obviously with the group and then get him into full practice, I would think by next week and see how he goes.

"It's good to have him out there. He's not moving around like a spring chicken right now, but he was involved in the play and joined in and wasn't any worse for wear after the session."

The 2013 MLS MVP underwent season-ending hip surgery last September and has been favored for a return in June, but extra precautions are still being taken to ensure a sound recovery.  

"We have to tread carefully," Yallop added. "We don't want to push and then all of a sudden we're going backwards again. The medical staff's done a good job with Mike, from the surgeon to Adrian Lamb - our fitness guy - to get him to this point. We don't want to ruin that. He's ahead of schedule and he's feeling pretty good."

Midfielder Matt Watson, who departed in the 53rd minute of Saturday's match after sustaining a concussion, will not be available for the Fire's trip to NYCFC. Meanwhile, Michael Stephens could be available after training for nearly a week following an ankle injury that left him out of the last three games.

[MORE: Larentowicz: 'The belief is there, the result and the product isn't']

Defensive form and offensive output

Behind the Montreal Impact, the Fire are currently tied with NYCFC for the second-least amount of goals scored in MLS. It's certainly not the most flattering of statistics for a team that has still seen its designated forwards' scoreless drought persist, but Yallop is perceptive as to what those problems can be attributed to.  

"It's been frustrating all around," he said. "We had a meeting this morning. We've played pretty well enough to win maybe another game and we haven't done it. We're getting punished for our mistakes and not taking our chances when they come. That's soccer; it's won and lost in two boxes. Group-wise and playing-wise, it's been okay. We feel we're playing some decent stuff, but we've got to win and we know that.

"We've played well enough and created enough chances to score more goals, but we haven't and that's our issue at the moment, through confidence, through lack of technique. It's just that little bit of edge, that mental toughness and being ruthless around goal, and not being nice. In both boxes, we've just got to be a bit more ruthless and tough."

By the same token, Yallop credited the Men in Red's opponents when discussing the performances from his back four, citing the clinical finishing that has eluded the Fire for the better part of the previous nine matches.  

"I've been pleased," Yallop said. "The amount of chances we've given up is not that many, but the execution of the chances from the other team has been good. If you look at the goals on Saturday, they were two very good goals; they could be avoided by us in certain areas. Two very good finishes and two good plays.

"You don't want to concede any goals, but realistically, we've got some good attackers in this league and it's a pretty wide open league. Every team you play is not sitting back trying to get a result, they're trying to win."

[MORE: Larentowicz: 'The belief is there, the result and the product isn't']

Upcoming schedule vs. NYCFC, Eastern Conference opponents

“We’ve just got to go in here knowing they’re desperate to win,” Yallop said. “We’re desperate to win, too. We’ve lost two in a row. We’re desperate to get on the mark in our away form.

"There's pressure to win every game, so games against conference opponents are very important. We're still sitting in sixth spot ... we've lost five matches already, that's not good. These games coming up are very important. The next seven don't define your season, but it makes up a big part of it. We want to be ready and try and get wins in those games coming up.

Following a disappointing 2-1 loss to New York Red Bulls in the first-ever New York derby on Sunday, NYCFC will return to play on its home turf at Yankee Stadium, which, measured out to be approximately 70 yards by 110 yards, has drawn some criticism for its upkeep and narrow dimensions.  

"You've just got to deal with it. Obviously it's a tight pitch and one that they're more used to than us," Yallop said. "We've got to have some sharp feet on the field because there's not a lot of room; it's very condensed with a lot of players in the central areas.

"It comes into my thoughts, so we're just trying to pick a team that we feel is going to get after it and, for me, have a good performance and get a win."

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


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


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.