Fire

Fire remain hopeful after disappointing opener

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Fire remain hopeful after disappointing opener

The debut of the Veljko Paunovic-led Fire wasn't exactly what the team had in mind.

However, after Sunday's 4-3 loss to New York City FC, Paunovic and his players were staying positive.

After all, the Fire scored three goals and were still being asked about being more efficient with their chances. The attack did its job with David Accam playing a starring role.

However, the brand new defense struggled. Goalkeeper Matt Lampson owned up to some of the problems early, but the defense in front of him wasn't sharp either.

"The first half was definitely not good," Lampson said. "That third goal is on me and it's something that I need to learn from and get better. It's tough to learn from a loss. Obviously you want to learn from a win, but the pieces are there. I think we had the opportunity to score a lot of goals today and I think that's good going forward. I think it's going to take time for us to jell. I thought the second half was a lot better. With the wind it was a lot easier to play out of the back and it's a work in progress."

[RELATED: Fire drop goal fest 4-3 to New York City FC]

The back four of Brandon Vincent, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Michael Harrington made their Fire debuts. The first three from that group made their MLS debuts.

Still, Paunovic refused to criticize the defenders, rather saying the whole team is responsible.

"I would say defensively, I'm not saying defense four guys or five guys, I'm talking about the whole team," Paunovic said. "Defensively we have to work all together. The teamwork is what it takes to defend well so I think that the guys in the first half had issues, especially with [David] Villa and other guys, but I think they adapted and they adjusted.

"It's the first game and we will improve."

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Lampson got caught in possession by NYCFC's pressure early on, which affected the Fire's ability to build out of the back. There was an adjustment and improvement throughout the match from Lampson, but damage had already been done with three goals in the first 36 minutes, which forced the Fire to chase.

"I think the wind gave us the most trouble early on, honestly," Lampson said. "The same thing happened to New York in the second half because they tried to play out of the back, too. It was really difficult. Villa is very good at pressing. Obviously it took me three or four balls back to really realize that and that's on me, but their pressing was organized, their pressing was good and with the wind it was difficult to play behind them because of that."

Lampson said he found out earlier on Sunday that he would be starting and will continue to prepare as if he will be the starter. The debut didn't go as planned, but seeing how Paunovic responds to the performance in terms of his selections will be a telling moment early in his tenure.

The Fire now head to Orlando, which had a crowd of over 60,000 for a 2-2 draw against Real Salt Lake, on Friday with a home loss on the record. That will not be an easy game, especially considering the Fire didn't win a game on the road in all of 2015.

However, they say they believe in what Paunovic is doing and saw enough to believe things will get better.

"I'm encouraged by what I've seen today," Accam said. "We created a lot of chances. On another day we will finish four of five goals."

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.