Fire seek to quell Crew SC's home form with three points


Fire seek to quell Crew SC's home form with three points

With nearly a quarter of the regular season gone, there's little separating last year's Chicago Fire team to this year's squad. Through nine matches in 2014, the Men in Red held a 1-2-6 record. Heading into Friday night's Eastern Conference skirmish with Columbus Crew SC (4-4-2, 14 points), Frank Yallop's side (3-5-1, 10 points) sits just below the red line in seventh spot.

Barring a handful of matches in which they were on the end of unsalvageable scorelines in Yallop's first year at the helm, the Fire's 2014 and 2015 campaigns are two of a kind. Aside from a 2-0 defeat at the hands of defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy, the following eight matches have been evenly contested and settled by a goal or less.

The jarring disparity, despite accumulating virtually selfsame records at the same juncture only a year apart, still reflects itself in the goal department. With 17 in their pocket after nine games in 2014, the Men in Red are finding goals to be at a premium in 2015, having only netted nine, good for second-fewest in Major League Soccer.

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After addressing last week's anticlimactic 2-2 draw against New York City FC — in which the Fire stormed out to a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark in a superlative first half performance — Yallop will be on high alert come Friday as his side braces itself to overcome a high-octane and potent attacking force in Crew SC.

"They're a good side and they're good at home, so it's obviously a hard game for us," Yallop said. "We've got to go in there with a good attitude. We'll have the same sort of game plan as we did (at NYCFC) but obviously cut out our mistakes that cost us goals."

A group profoundly relying on its possession-oriented style of play, Gregg Berhalter's outfit have underachieved thus far, showing how well it can perform at times without necessarily getting the equivalent results. Much like the Fire, Crew SC's woes away from home have overshadowed their otherwise near impeccable home record — winning four of five at MAPFRE Stadium — the exception being a narrow 2-1 loss to an eye-catching New York Red Bulls team.

Leading the league in passing accuracy (82.4 percent), home goals scored (13), chances created per match (11.6), shots per game (15.2) and, not to mention forward Kei Kamara peering down from his perch atop the goal-scoring leaderboard with seven to his name, the Black & Gold boast an arsenal of attacking threats.

Expect a clever, mercurial and tireless Federico Higuain to put his stamp on the action with his playmaking and goal-scoring know-how, while threading the ball to the likes of Kamara and Ethan Finlay, who — time and again — will impose their lateral and vertical flexibility against the Fire defense, drifting and adjusting their movements to link up with the Argentinian.

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Despite the obvious goal threat, the leadership within Berhalter's delegation has yet to fully develop. Since losing vice captain Wil Trapp to a concussion, a depleted Crew SC — on the heels of a 2-0 defeat to the San Jose Earthquakes — will have to find an extra gear to subdue the blistering pace provided by David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, who've pulled together in front of Shaun Maloney to wreak havoc for opposing defenders.

On Friday, the same might be said when Michael Parkhurst and Emanuel Pogatetz face the Men in Red's Designated Player trio, who'll be integral components as Yallop's side enters its second in a span of seven successive matches against Eastern Conference foes, while looking to pounce at the opportunity to gain three valuable away points.

"We've played well enough to get more points than we have," Yallop said. "Just have to prove it now."

The Fire are 24-14-14 all-time in regular season matches against Crew SC, while clutching a slight 10-9-6 advantage in matches played in Columbus. Last season, the teams finished 1-1-1 in three meetings, with the Fire claiming a 4-2 win in a fifth-round U.S. Open Cup match.

Friday's match, scheduled for a 7 p.m. CT kickoff, is the first of three regular-season bouts between the two sides in 2015. The Men in Red host the return leg at Toyota Park on Wednesday, July 15 before returning to MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday, July 19.

Hear what else Yallop had to say in the video above.

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.