Fire

Fire try to take advantage of Giovinco-less Toronto FC tonight on CSN+

Fire try to take advantage of Giovinco-less Toronto FC tonight on CSN+

If ever there was a good time to play Toronto FC, this might be it.

Toronto’s reigning Major League Soccer MVP Sebastian Giovinco will be out with a quad injury when TFC visits the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park on Saturday.

In addition, Toronto’s other two Designated Players, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, started and played all 90 minutes for the U.S. national team on Tuesday. Both are expected to play against the Fire. Altidore has been red hot with five goals in his past seven MLS matches despite only starting three of those after returning from injury.

Toronto (12-8-7, 43 points) is chasing first place in the Eastern Conference, sitting one point behind New York City FC but with a game in hand. The Fire (6-12-8, 26 points) recently moved out of last place in the league, but still need a few more wins to get back into the playoff race. The match will be televised on CSN+ (channel finder) with coverage beginning at 7:30 p.m.

“We believe that for sure Giovinco is an important player for them, but we know that they are one of the best teams in the league in our conference and they have resources to respond for that,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We know that’s going to be a very difficult game. We know they are very competitive. They are fighting for the first position. They are a team that is very consistent so far in the league and we know that we have to be on our best in order to be competitive and win the game.”

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The Fire also have a pair of players returning from international duty in David Accam, who played in two games for Ghana, and David Arshakyan, who debuted and played 70 minutes for Armenia in a World Cup qualifying loss at Denmark on Sunday. The recently acquired Arshakyan could be in line to make his home debut. Adding two international-level players to an attack that is coming off a 3-goal performance and one of its best games of the year against Philadelphia last weekend will give Paunovic some difficult choices come Saturday.

“I think we have a great opportunity,” Paunovic said. “Winning the game will be not just the starting part of the streak of games that we have at home and winning those, but also I think it’s a great opportunity to come closer to the playoffs. Saying that I think it’s going to give us a huge, huge boost in order to finish building the best we can.”

Midfielder Khaly Thiam is eligible to return after serving his red card suspension last week. Forward Luis Solignac is the only player listed on the Fire’s injury report. He is listed as questionable with a groin injury.

Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

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.