Fire

Fire try to 'escape from the bottom' in season finale at Toronto

Fire try to 'escape from the bottom' in season finale at Toronto

The 2016 Chicago Fire season will end Sunday and it has been over in terms of chasing a playoff spot for a few weeks, but coach Veljko Paunovic still believes the team has something to play for beyond trying to be a spoiler.

Paunovic wants to see his team avoid finishing last in the league for a second straight year. If the Fire can win at Toronto FC on Sunday, which will be televised on CSN with coverage beginning at 3 p.m., there is a chance the Fire can move ahead of Houston in the standings. The Fire (7-16-10, 31 points) are two points behind Houston, which plays at Colorado as part of the league’s simultaneous kickoffs to close the regular season.

“I think we owe to our job, to our fans, to our club, to everyone in the league professionality and we have to play the game the best we can,” Paunovic said earlier this week. “That’s very important for me. On the other end there is another motivation which motivates me even more. We have the opportunity if we win the game to win that second game in a row, second game on the road this year, but at the same time… we have the opportunity to escape from the bottom in the overall standings.”

Of course, winning on the road against a playoff team won’t be easy. The Fire are 1-13-2 on the road this year and Toronto (13-9-11, 50 points) is playing to get a first round bye in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Toronto just got reigning league MVP Sebastian Giovinco back from injury. Giovinco played all 90 minutes and had an assist in the 2-2 draw at Montreal last week after missing the previous five games. Giovinco did not play when TFC won 2-1 at Toyota Park on Sept. 10.

“We have to be on top of our performance to play against a team like Toronto and players like Giovinco and other guys,” Paunovic said. “I think they have a very good team.”

In addition to Toronto’s win in Bridgeview, TFC also beat the Fire 1-0 on July 9 in Canada.

“We know what we can expect from them,” Paunovic said. “We know how euphoric they’re going to be, the people, the stands, the crowd and everything.”

The Fire will be without forward Luis Solignac, who will be serving a suspension after being red carded in last week’s win against New England. David Arshakyan, who joined the Fire in August, could see more minutes or get a start in Solignac’s absence. Defender Johan Kappelhof is the only listed injury. Kappelhof is listed as questionable with a hip injury.

The game could also mark the last appearance in a Fire jersey for some of the players. After another disappointing season, more turnover in the roster should be expected. How much change there will be remains to be seen, but in all likelihood at least a couple of Sunday’s starters won’t be back.

Chicago Fire at Toronto FC

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

TV: CSN

Where: BMO Field, Toronto, Ontario

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.