Fire showed progress in Orlando, but still have to improve


Fire showed progress in Orlando, but still have to improve

Friday night's 1-1 draw at Orlando was a sign of much-needed improvement for the Chicago Fire, but even as coach Veljko Paunovic said, the team still has a ways to go in a number of areas.

Paunovic spoke to the media for his weekly conference call on Monday afternoon and while he spoke highly of the result and performance in Orlando, he addressed some things the team still needs to improve on.

The Fire played down a man for an hour and earned a point on the road. Holding onto the draw gave Paunovic his first result as Fire coach.

“I was very excited after the game," Paunovic said. "I celebrated, to be honest, as a victory because it’s very important for us to get that confidence scoring points and again, especially in a game like that. I think the tie is a good result, but I had hoped that we could even win that game and that’s what I said to the players in the locker room at halftime."

[RELATED: Fire hold on for draw in Orlando after first half red card]

On the downside, it was the second straight match the Fire were dominated in possession. After the Fire held the ball for just under 40 percent of the match against New York City FC, Orlando had 65 percent of the possession on Friday. Granted, the Lions had an extra man for most of that game, but Orlando had a stranglehold on possession in the first half hour of the match as well.

Paunovic has talked about high pressure and building out of the back as his tactical priorities, but is possession play something he is willing to sacrifice?

“For me, possession is a very important part of the game," Paunovic said. "Always when it’s possible we like to have the possession. In this game it was very difficult as you know being one man down, it’s never easy to take over the possession, but I would say that we have that mindset that it’s important for us and we have to work on that to improve. This is what we were doing today in the session and in the days to come.”

A big reason for the lack of possession is a low passing percentage from the Fire. In the opener, the Fire completed 66 percent of their passes. Against Orlando that number went up to 71 percent, but that's still not good enough. For comparison, NYCFC completed 78 percent of their passes and Orlando completed passes at an 87 percent rate.

A possible explanation could be the lack of cohesion within the team. The Fire had eight players make their club debuts in the season opener. Midfielder John Goossens debuted in Orlando after not having his visa in time to play against New York City. Playing down a man for so long against Orlando made it difficult to evaluate certain aspects of the team's performance, possession play being chief among them, but Saturday's home match against Columbus (4 p.m. CSN+) will mark another opportunity to see if the Fire have improved in this regard.

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Possession play isn't the only aspect he wants to see the Fire improve. Overall defense and offensive efficiency remain priorities for the Fire coach.

“I still think we have to improve defensively," Paunovic said. "We were better against Orlando, but we still have to improve. Also we have to improve in scoring our chances because we still created a lot of chances, which is great, but still now we have to score those goals."

As for who will play in place of the suspended Michael Harrington at right back, Paunovic named Rodrigo Ramos as a possibility, but also added the staff is still deciding. He mentioned Michael Stephens and Johan Kappelhof as players who can play right back, but wanted to see how they do in training.

On the injury front, Eric Gehrig is also expected to be out against Columbus. Gilberto, who sat out against Orlando, is back in training, but is doing some side work with the trainer instead of joining with the team for the full session.


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.