Fire

Fire square off against high-flying FC Dallas

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Fire square off against high-flying FC Dallas

Costly errors and soft goals. For a refurbished Chicago Fire outfit marred by injuries to key players during key stretches of the current MLS campaign, individual and collective blunders in recent times have left bitter tastes in the mouths of many – from fans and players alike – and it’s left the coaching staff in utter disbelief.

“Individual mistakes have cost us a lot of points so far this year,” assistant coach Marc Bircham said Saturday. “We’ve looked at games where blatant individual mistakes have probably cost us 10 points.”

After surmounting a 1-0 deficit to the New England Revolution to assume a 2-1 lead with a quarter of an hour to play, a mix-up between Adaílton and Sean Johnson gifted the visitors a share of the points at Toyota Park last Saturday. For a team that, slowly but surely, is welcoming back Shaun Maloney, David Accam and Patrick Nyarko from injury – with the impending arrival of newly acquired Designated Player Gilberto to boot – the Fire (5-11-4, 19 points) enter Sunday’s match with an assembly of attacking options, lessons learned and a point to prove against high-flying Western Conference leader FC Dallas (11-5-5, 38 points).

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Another vital piece of the puzzle is center back and captain Jeff Larentowicz, who, after being sidelined with a herniated disc in his neck since June 24, looks bound to make his long-awaited return to the heart of the defense.

“It’s looking like our starting 11 that we’ve wanted since the start of the season,” Bircham said.

With all but Chris Ritter (groin) and Mike Magee (knee) available, the Men in Red will have their hands full. Riding a five-match winning streak in regular season play, Dallas’ quartet of Fabián Castillo, Mauro Díaz, Michael Barrios and David Texeira has accounted for 10 of the 13 goals scored in victories over Houston, New England, Orlando City SC, D.C. United and the Portland Timbers – the Fire’s next opponent – to erase a previous six-game winless skid.

At the other end, Óscar Pareja’s men only conceded two goals during that stretch – an own goal and penalty kick – that has seen them leave Seattle Sounders FC and others in their wake to catapult to the top of the Western Conference standings.

[RELATED: Fire await Gilberto's arrival, admit more dealings in the works]

Planted to the base of the Eastern Conference table, the Men in Red’s proneness to sporadically submit to slow starts and allow the opposition to dictate play has provoked Bircham and head coach Frank Yallop to implement a transformed tactical approach, one that would force Dallas to play on the Fire’s terms, and one that would demand an unwavering effort for 90 minutes at that.

“We’ve got to turn their strength into their weakness,” Bircham added. “They’re very good at going forward; their attackers are very good. We’ve got to stay strong defensively and exploit that with our attacking talent.

“We’re going to work on something different where we’re going to look to exploit areas that they vacate with their attacking play. Hopefully it’ll work, and hopefully there are a couple of things that we’ve changed that will prompt them to change their game plan if we’re on top. If you’re going for a different style or game plan, it’s important that you’re in control of the game because then the opposition has to change for you. If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to what we do. We just feel like we need to do something a little bit different.”

NOTE: Sunday's match will mark the debut of fan-centric MLS jersey numbers, a league-wide initiative that will feature the faces of 2015 Fire season ticket holders on players' jersey numbers in all home and away fixtures in August. 

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.