Fire

Fire 'primed and ready' for 'massive' USOC semifinal vs. Union

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Fire 'primed and ready' for 'massive' USOC semifinal vs. Union

In the moments after being dealt a 1-0 defeat by the Portland Timbers last Friday, a contingent of Chicago Fire members were left to take a dim view of a sixth loss against a Western Conference opponent.

Head coach Frank Yallop, as well as goalkeeper Sean Johnson and defender Eric Gehrig, each hailed the defensive shape of the team despite being undone by a fortuitous bounce that led to an opportunistic goal, dispatched by Portland’s Fanendo Adi. But after addressing a stinging 12th defeat on the year, the tenor of the conversation changed course as the three were then instantaneously showered with questions surrounding their next match.

“[Wednesday] can’t come soon enough,” Gehrig said.

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Well, it’s here, and it’s the small matter of a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal against the Philadelphia Union. With a berth in the final and the auspicious opportunity to host it at stake, the future is now for a club that has punched below its weight for the majority of the season.

The way things have shaped up thus far, fluctuating performances in league play have seen playoff hopes ebb and flow, with the club’s Open Cup fortunes giving the Fire more than enough hope to believe a first trophy since 2006 is within reach.

“First things first. We’ve got to get a result in Philadelphia,” Yallop said Monday via teleconference. “We’re primed and ready for that, but I think it’s massive for the club especially when the season hasn’t gone well in the league play. We’ve started to get our team looking like the team I envisioned and hopefully it’s enough to get past this game and go on and host [the Final] and do well. But I’m not getting ahead of myself. We have a tough, tough game in Philly that we’re getting ready for. We want to win that one and then look forward to the next one once that gets done.”

Since edging USL’s Louisville City FC, 1-0, in the fourth round on June 16, the Fire have gone from strength to strength in the competition. 3-1 victories over Charlotte Independence and Orlando City SC in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively, see the Men in Red on the cusp of surmounting the penultimate hurdle in hopes of challenging for a fifth Open Cup championship. That task, however, will present unique challenges against a Union team sitting one point above the Fire in the Eastern Conference table and with just as much to play for in hopes of salvaging a less-than-ideal year.

[RELATED: With win vs. Union, Fire would host U.S. Open Cup final]

The Men in Red will square off against Jim Curtin’s side at PPL Park on Wednesday and again four days later in regular season play, capping off two matches that, by Sunday night, could reasonably be categorized as defining moments in determining what the Fire are truly made of.

Having not won away from Toyota Park in 19 attempts across all competitions, Wednesday’s 11th semifinal appearance in club history and Sunday’s third and final meeting between the two sides will both be given equal attention.

“I feel we’ve still got a chance of making the playoffs,” Yallop added. “We’ve got games in hand, [including on] Philadelphia. They’re obviously right down where we are. We’ve got to go on a run, but at some point, teams do. I feel that we’re still capable of doing that. It’s not just, ‘Let’s get to the Open Cup final and blow the league off.’ That’s not the game plan. We’re hoping to win on Wednesday and win on Sunday. I would think that Philadelphia are probably thinking, hoping the same.”

Viewing information:

Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire

Kickoff time: 6:30 p.m. CT

Where: PPL Park; Chester, Pa.

Broadcast: Chicago-Fire.com, U.S. Soccer YouTube  

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.