Fire

Fire succumb to slow start, fall to Crew SC

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Fire succumb to slow start, fall to Crew SC

Behind a stalwart performance from Sean Johnson in goal, the Chicago Fire slipped to their 10th defeat of the season Wednesday night, falling to Columbus Crew SC, 1-0, in front of an announced crowd of 14,092 at Toyota Park.

A 41st-minute goal from Kei Kamara was all that was needed, as head coach Frank Yallop's unit, meanwhile, remained at the foot of the standings and had little to draw on despite entering the match following an encouraging win over Western Conference-leading Seattle Sounders FC just four days prior.

"Probably the worst we’ve played, the first half," Yallop said after the match. "Not happy from the endeavor and the fight of the team, which I felt we had in the last five games but tonight it wasn’t, especially in the first half. The second half we had a bit of a go. We were totally out-played tonight.”

After plying his trade in the center of the midfield and forging a partnership with Razvan Cocis of late, rookie Matt Polster retreated to center back in place of Adaílton, who'd been suspended because of yellow card accumulation. Thus, Chris Ritter earned a starting place in Yallop's midfield. With just over an hour under his belt over the weekend, Patrick Nyarko was restored to the bench to allow Michael Stephens to acquire his first MLS start since the Fire's 3-1 defeat to D.C. United on June 3.

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Crew SC applied significant pressure to the Fire defense early, spending the majority of the opening 45 minutes in the Men in Red's defensive third. The Fire continued to absorb pressure as the half wore on, relying far too much on Johnson to keep the visitors out.

Federico Higuaín and Kamara combined twice in the opening 10 minutes, a trend that continued throughout the evening, as the Sierra Leone international got in behind the Fire back line on multiple occasions and forced numerous saves from an alert Johnson.

Kamara's diligent work ethic eventually produced the breakthrough with four minutes remaining in the first half, getting on the end of an Ethan Finlay cross to head past a helpless Johnson to notch his third goal in two games against the Fire, and league-leading 13th on the year, while Finlay notched his 11th assist of 2015 on the play.

[RELATED: Fire set for back-to-back matches against Columbus]

Following the halftime interval, Yallop brought on Jason Johnson, David Accam and Patrick Nyarko to inflict some damage on Crew SC. A Harry Shipp free kick in the 76th minute and Accam's right-footed strike nine minutes from time were the lone chances for the Fire in the second half before Ted Unkel's full-time whistle left the Men in Red frustrated with yet another home defeat.

The two sides assemble again in four days, as the Fire travel to the Arch City in the third and final meeting of the season on Sunday.

"Every game’s different," Yallop added. "If we score early then the game can change and be different. They’ve come in here and played quite well away from home. We’ve played well away from home to at least get a couple of wins, but it wasn’t to be. Talk is cheap. Whether we’re depleted or not we got to find a way to do it.”   

Chicago Fire Starting XI (subs)

(4-4-2): Sean Johnson; Lovel Palmer, Eric Gehrig, Matt Polster, Patrick Doody; Michael Stephens (Patrick Nyarko, 58'), Chris Ritter (David Accam, 72'), Razvan Cocis, Harry Shipp; Mike Magee (C), Kennedy Igboananike (Jason Johnson, 58').

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.