Fire shifting focus, gunning for fourth consecutive home win


Fire shifting focus, gunning for fourth consecutive home win

Since a 1-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City, the lingering narrative girdling the Chicago Fire has been that of a lack in clinical finishing and concerns over the inability to get off to a flying start in most of their four away matches this season, all of which have proven to be unsuccessful in the points column thus far.

“For us, now, you’ve seen two different teams; one at home and one on the road,” said midfielder Harry Shipp after training Wednesday. “At home, we had confidence and a little bit of a swagger going forward. We played one-two touch, we moved the ball quickly and made it hard to defend. Then we went on the road and played a totally different way. We’ve got to figure out why that is and how to fix that."
In search of their first result against a Western Conference opponent, the Fire (3-4-0, nine points) return to Toyota Park on Saturday with hopes of stretching their home win streak to four games against a visiting Real Salt Lake.

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In his second year at the helm, head coach Jeff Cassar follows in the footsteps of Jason Kreis, who departed for New York City FC after the 2013 campaign. With the strenuous task of safeguarding Kreis' philosophy that led the Claret and Cobalt to a MLS Cup trophy in 2009 and a runners-up finish in 2013, Cassar is feeling the weight of injury and scoring woes that currently sees his side sitting in seventh place in the Western Conference standings.

Having gone 496 minutes since netting a goal from one of their own -- a Javier Morales free kick against the San Jose Earthquakes on April 5 -- and only scoring one goal from open play since March 29, RSL is still finding a way to grind out results, as evidenced by the five draws they've accumulated in 2015, tied for second-most in Major League Soccer.

On the back of a weather-delayed, scoreless draw against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday night, it'll be a fifth road test in two months for Cassar's side, which faces a motivated Fire team eager to continue the winning trend at Toyota Park and put their recent loss to Sporting KC behind them for the time being.

“It didn’t damper the spirit of the team because the guys have been training hard," said former RSL and current Fire defender Lovel Palmer. "If you watched the session today, it was very intense. We’re really gunning and looking forward to our game against Real Salt Lake."       

“We’ve won three straight at home and we’re really starting to establish our identity at home," right back Eric Gehrig added. "It’s our fortress and we’re letting teams know that they’re not going to come in here and boss us around. We’re going to continue building on what we’ve been doing and hopefully get another result at home on Saturday.”

[RELATED: Lack of conviction, slow starts underpin Fire's road woes]

The Men in Red are 3-2-4 against RSL at Toyota Park and from 2011 to 2013, enjoyed a four-match unbeaten streak before suffering a heart-breaking 3-2 defeat in their most recent meeting on May 3, 2014. After assuming a 2-0 lead with 20 minutes to play, last-gasp stoppage time goals by Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata allowed RSL to steal all three points, a match that featured eight of the current Fire players.

On Saturday, RSL will have to make do without Plata, who's recovering from a fractured fifth metatarsal sustained in training at the end of January. Chris Schuler -- a former Fire PDL product -- and Morales are out with a torn medial meniscus and concussion, respectively, while forward Sebastian Jaime is questionable with a right tibia fracture.

For a depleted side struggling to find the back of the net (one goal in four away matches), another gritty performance from a team reliant on its high-pressure system -- behind veterans Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman, and youngsters Luis Gil and Jordan Allen -- will be required if they have any chance of stifling the Fire.   

“Teams that win championships protect their home turf," Palmer said. "That’s what we definitely want to do and come Saturday against Real Salt Lake, we don’t want to make it any different. We want to win at home, we want to play good for ourselves and we want to entertain the fans because that’s what soccer is about: filling the stadium, playing well and getting three points." 

Check out the video above to hear what else Palmer, Gehrig and Shipp had to say. For complete coverage of Fire vs. Real Salt Lake, tune in to Pregame Live beginning at 1:30 p.m. on CSN before kickoff at 2 p.m. The game will start on CSN before switching over to CSN+ at halftime.     

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.