Fire travel to face Dynamo in the Houston heat


Fire travel to face Dynamo in the Houston heat

What was once an established fixture and recurrent feature on the Chicago Fire's Eastern Conference schedule is now on the cusp of becoming an inter-conference clash.

Come Friday, Frank Yallop's side will enter the Lone Star State and BBVA Compass Stadium - a venue that's yielded few results for the Fire - to face the Houston Dynamo for the clubs' 21st regular-season encounter. Newly installed in the Western Conference, the Dynamo sit on 20 points and three places adrift of FC Dallas below the red line, while the Men in Red occupy last place in the East, a seven-point gap separating them from the sixth playoff spot.

Since its 2012 unveiling, the 22,000-seater has left the Men in Red winless in four attempts. It is also notoriously and unfavorably known to the opposition for being situated in a locale where sizzling temperatures and humidity sink in during the summer months, a particular point of reference as Yallop psychologically readies his team for a shift in habitat.          

"It's never easy going there," he said Thursday. "But we've got to pick ourselves up. We had a good result on Tuesday. We've got to build on that, and go into this game with confidence that we can get a result and win."

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Indeed, an uplifting 3-1 victory over USL's Charlotte Independence in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 - courtesy of admirable displays from Mike Magee, Patrick Nyarko and Lovel Palmer, among others - helped cast antecedent issues surrounding final third play aside, at least for the time being.

Granted, having only plucked two wins from the Open Cup amid a barren run of form that left his side winless in MLS play in June, Yallop alluded to Tuesday's result - regardless of the opponent - as a viable "turning point" in the season, and the hint of momentum that the Fire could do well to capitalize on as the second half of the season looms. 

"I don't look at what division any team is in," Yallop added. "We're not inferior to anybody in the league, we've just got to look at who we're playing against and be ready for them. We're desperate to get a good result and a win. It's pretty frustrating for all of us involved. We know we have a team that can win in this league, it's just getting it all together and making sure we stick together."

[MORE: Fire to host Orlando City SC in U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals] 

As the Men in Red begin a month chock-full of league fixtures, Yallop understands he will have to play his cards close to his chest. Friday night's visit to Houston comes on the heels of another midweek match, which gave rise to some personnel concerns.

On the defensive front, Lovel Palmer, who notched his first goal since Sept. 13, 2014 against Toronto FC and first assist since turning provider on Aug. 23, 2014 at Toronto, was withdrawn nine minutes from the final whistle Tuesday with what Yallop described as a "tight groin," but the Jamaican defender "felt pretty good" and is expected to be ready to face his former side, according to Yallop.

Jeff Larentowicz, who'd been left out of the fourth-round Open Cup victory over Louisville City FC on June 16, returned to the fold with a 90-minute outing in the 1-0 defeat to D.C. United last week, but was again left off the team sheet with a recurring groin injury. "He trained today," Yallop said of his veteran captain. "Don't want to take any risks, so we'll make a decision on him tomorrow."

Apart from back and hamstring injuries that've plagued Designated Players Shaun Maloney and David Accam in recent weeks, Joevin Jones' departure for Gold Cup duty with Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday will leave another considerable void to fill in the midfield. Harry Shipp made way for Nyarko in the 77th minute Tuesday, and, after logging 1475 minutes between MLS and Open Cup play in his second year, Yallop said the decision to take the Homegrown midfielder off was "twofold: to give someone else a chance and try to keep Harry as fresh as we can for the weekend."

[RELATED: Five things from Fire vs. D.C.: One chance is all it takes 

Meanwhile, Magee and Nyarko, linking up for the insurance goal to send the Fire through to their 12th Open Cup quarterfinal appearance, "got through the game no problem," Yallop added. "They're available and we'll definitely be using them at some point, but for them to start the game will be tough."

The Men in Red, seeking to avoid a fifth consecutive league defeat, find themselves living precariously midway through the regular season. As is Houston, which is still in the process of molding to head coach Owen Coyle's style of play during his first year at the helm.    

"Owen's a very, very good coach that's come into a new league and done well," Yallop said. "For us, we know the guys that are going to be out there and they have a few absentees, as we do. It'll be interesting to see what lineup comes up, but coaching-wise, it's always a tough game away from home as we know."

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason


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


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.