Fire

Fire stress mental approach ahead of season finale

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Fire stress mental approach ahead of season finale

Undoubtedly the most patent source of frustration that left Fire interim coach Brian Bliss bewildered upon return from the nation's capital last week was his side's flimsy mentality.

Content with the resolve showed during a two-game road stint in Canada toward the end of September and a come-from-behind victory over the New England Revolution, the exact opposite was on display in a listless 4-0 defeat at the hands of playoff-destined D.C. United.

With the Fire (8-19-6, 30 points) hosting MLS Supporters' Shield challenger New York Red Bulls (17-10-6, 57 points) at Toyota Park on Sunday (6 p.m. CT; CSN), Bliss will take a stab at wrapping up the regular season on a winning note. And, perhaps most importantly, mending the mentality against a technically savvy and diligent Red Bulls outfit.        

“That’s been pretty much what I’ve been preaching since I took over here a month ago, that we have to change the way we think about the game but we also have to change the way we mentally approach the game," Bliss said after training Saturday, shaking his head. "Being half-in and half-out mentally is not good enough, and it’s very difficult to get wins as it is in this league. So you’ve got to be mentally there, and that’s the challenge that I have every week with these guys. Again, they apply it in training, but you have to apply it on a Saturday or Sunday."

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What stands in front of Bliss and the Men in Red on Sunday is a match that holds little to no statistical matter. The Fire will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, and try to avoid becoming the lone team to finish the regular season with 20 losses in 2015. A handful of personnel changes are expected, of which hardly any will include younger players, as was previously broached.

Combating the midfield trio of Dax McCarty, Felipe and Sacha Kljestan will be critical. Of the five goals the Fire have conceded against Jesse Marsch's group this year, Kljestan has been directly involved in four, scoring two penalty kicks and assisting on two others.  

"Dax and Felipe are good in the middle, so they’re comfortable bringing guys in the middle and getting numbers in there," Homegrown midfielder Harry Shipp said. "For us, it’s about starting early and hopefully getting them off their game in the first 30 minutes or so. Hopefully we can nick a goal, and if not, don’t panic, don’t force things and try not to give up any unfortunate goals going into halftime.” 

[RELATED: Bliss talks 2016 roster outlook; CHIvNY start time pushed back]

From the neutral's perspective, the counterattacking verve put forth in the teams' previous meeting at Red Bull Arena was a joy to watch. From Shipp's standpoint, a commitment to balancing offensive and defensive assignments - which went missing in a 3-2 setback on Sept. 11 - will be even more paramount this time around.

“We’ve got some pretty good team speed all around, so it’s something we want to use, but it’s something that we want to balance," the 23-year-old added. "You saw it in other games this year where we kind of get into track meets with teams, we score some goals but we end up conceding as many, if not more goals than we score in those games. It’s about picking our chances when they turn the ball over, especially in their own half, and those mini-transition moments where you’re going 40-45 yards instead of 80-90 yards. If we’re able to keep the ball in their defensive half and transition when they turn it over there, I think we’ll be a little more successful.”

[MORE FIRE: By the numbers: Gauging Fire defender Adailton's effectiveness]

Viewing information:

Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls

Kickoff time: 6 p.m. CT

Where: Toyota Park; Bridgeview, Ill. 

Broadcast: CSN 

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.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

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.