Fire trying to stay positive and focused for final third of season

Fire trying to stay positive and focused for final third of season

As things stand now it looks like the Chicago Fire are headed for another year without playoffs.

The Fire are in last place in all of Major League Soccer with 19 points and after Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal defeat, a clear positive thing from this season and something to look forward to in the later part of the season is now gone.

The Fire’s playoff chances are slim, sitting eight points out of the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference with 12 matches to go. Despite the dreary outlook, midfielder Razvan Cocis said the mood in the team hasn’t dropped.

“We had a tough week,” Cocis said after Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Orlando. “Not the greatest. We lost two games, we lost in the cup, which hurt us a lot. It’s still hurting us, but we talked about it and we just have to keep going. There’s just no other way. We talked about who wants to be in the locker room and who wants to keep going. Then he needs to stay, he needs to work more and more in the practice session to get better and be better as a team, as individuals.”

After Cocis said this during the postgame press conference, Veljko Paunovic jumped in with an unsolicited comment to emphasize the desired mentality for the rest of the season.

“We said there are only two ways here,” Paunovic said. “One is not acceptable, which is abandon. The second one is we continue working hard, we work together and we have to keep the spirit and the positiveness in our group, which is very important because this is all a process and this is all great opportunity for us all to become better professionals and for sure better people because these kind of challenges are very important and we have to appreciate this opportunity actually.”

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Even if the Fire fail to make the playoffs as expected, it would be notable if the team has a solid run down the stretch. Actually winning a road game, something the team hasn’t done in more than two years, would be a positive and should be one of the team's goals the rest of the season.

Players like Luis Solignac, who was very active in the final third after subbing on Sunday, and David Arshakyan, who is still awaiting his visa, can impress down the stretch to give the Fire’s roster a better outlook heading into 2017.

“We need real men to step up,” winger David Accam said. “Obviously we are down, but we can’t stay down. We need everyone to step up and I think today most of the guys stood up and they showed real character. So at the moment it’s good.”

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.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason


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.