Fire

Fire start busy stretch with a long injury list

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Fire start busy stretch with a long injury list

Right before starting a stretch of three matches in eight days is not a good time to have a rash of injuries and illness.

The Chicago Fire start that stretch Saturday in Columbus, which will be aired on CSN+ with coverage starting at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live (channel finder). On top of longer-term injuries to Brandon Vincent (still out with a quad injury) and Daniel Johnson (left MCL sprain), Arturo Alvarez (lower back), Juninho (left knee), Johan Kappelhof (groin), Dax McCarty (illness) and Michael Harrington (illness) are all listed as questionable.

Alvarez wasn’t on the bench in Kansas City two weeks ago. He was on the list of available substitutes last week against New England, but didn’t play. Alvarez was in training this week.

Juninho and Kappelhof both left practice early on Wednesday after picking up those injuries. After practice that day, coach Veljko Paunovic said he expects those players to be available in Columbus.

McCarty and Harrington were kept away from the team Wednesday after being sick.

“Obviously these guys need some adjustments in their workload,” Paunovic said on Wednesday. “We are aware of where we are right now in the season. Late in the season we have to start working on more individualized program for every player and depending on how they feel in everyday communication and chats with them before training, we determine how we’re going to proceed with each one of them.”

The good news for the Fire on the injury front is that Vincent and John Goossens, who has been out since suffering an ankle injury in the season opener at Columbus, were on the practice field getting workouts in while the team trained. That means those two are nearing returns, although neither are imminent.

Columbus has its own injury issues. Right back Harrison Afful (thigh) and playmaking midfielder Federico Higuain (knee) are both listed as questionable. Columbus Dispatch reporter Andrew Erickson had the latest on the status of Afful and Higuain.

Columbus has been busy in the past week by signing winger Pedro Santos from Portuguese club SC Braga and trading long-time winger Ethan Finlay to Minnesota. Santos is not expected to be available for Saturday’s game.

This will be the third of three meetings between the Fire and the Crew. The season began with a 1-1 draw in Ohio. Just over a month later the Fire picked up a 1-0 win at Toyota Park.

“I expect their same style,” Fire defender Jonathan Campbell said. “I don’t know the formation. I know they switched that some in the back with how many people they’re going with, but they’re at home, I expect them to play out of the back. Kind of the same thing as every time before.”

After playing in Columbus, the Fire play in Montreal on Wednesday and host Toronto in a big Eastern Conference clash three days after that.

The Fire are coming off a ninth straight home win, but have lost two straight on the road. Many teams in the league have drastically different records at home and on the road. The Fire are no exception.

“I think if you figure that out, you could be a pretty good coach,” Campbell said with a laugh. “I’m not quite sure. I think travel might have to do a decent amount with it. Playing in front of the fans has a huge impact, but I think just teams aren’t able to play their style consistently for 90 minutes where at home they’re used to the field, the conditions, the routine. So I just don’t think teams are able to do that consistently for 90 minutes. They might try to do that for the first half, but the second half you kind of get tired and start sitting back more and then it wears down.”

Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew

Where: Mapfre Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. (Fire Pregame Live)

Records: Fire (12-5-5, 41 points), Crew (10-12-2, 32 points)

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”