Fire wary of 'big, big' hill to climb to keep playoff hopes alive


Fire wary of 'big, big' hill to climb to keep playoff hopes alive

In the buildup to the Fire's midweek fixture against the New York Red Bulls, head coach Frank Yallop reminded reporters via teleconference of the team's struggles throughout much of the 2015 term, some of which materialized during the disappointing 1-0 home defeat to the Colorado Rapids last week.

"It seems like we're not quite getting the right combination of creating our chances and scoring them, and the percentage of chances that go in against us," he said.  

What a difference a few days can make.

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Barring the conceding of a first-half penalty kick and a contentious goal four minutes into the second stanza, the Men in Red showed integrity and purpose in an inspired performance Wednesday night, handing Jesse Marsch's side their seventh loss of the season behind a two-goal showing from Kennedy Igboananike.

“Any time you score two goals is good," Yallop said of the Nigerian. "I always say this, and we’ve talked about it a little bit: it takes a while for guys to settle and get their feel. It’s a tough league to come into from the outside. ... Big thing for me is, he works hard, he wants to do well, he tries his best, and he scores two goals to win us the game. So, very happy for him. He’s a good kid that works hard, and the guys really like him and back him up, and I thought he did great tonight.”

Through two-thirds of the campaign, the Fire's inefficiency in front of goal has been a worrying sign. Just four days prior, the Fire were left licking their wounds after 90 minutes had transpired at Toyota Park after falling to the Rapids. Dillon Serna's first-minute strike - Colorado's first of only two efforts on target on the night - was all that mattered despite the 20 shots (four on target) the Fire peppered at Clint Irwin's goal, three of which flew from the boot of Igboananike.

[MORE: Fire midfielder Shaun Maloney seals move to Hull City]

Fast forward to Wednesday night, and some of those issues - at least momentarily - were put to bed. While both of New York's only shots on target resulted in goals, two tallies from Igboananike either side of halftime stole the show. He brought his regular season total to six goals, enough to pull level with David Accam as the Fire's joint top scorer. The Nigerian's six shots accounted for a third of the Men in Red's total count (17) by night's end, many of them forcing exceptional saves from Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.

"We're never going to keep our head down," he said. "All that matters most is three points. We have been losing and making a lot of mistakes, but tonight we beat New York, not an easy game. It's our hard work that pays off (tonight)."   

The endeavor on display on many an occasion throughout the season was there for all to see Wednesday night, and it'll have to be come Saturday night. The Fire begin their three-game road stint against Orlando City SC at the Citrus Bowl, where Adrian Heath's side has dropped five regular season contests.  

“It’s difficult," Yallop added. "It’s not been a great season, obviously. We’re bottom of the league, but I feel we’ve performed better than the points have shown. That’s always a building block for me. I think that the circumstances in the season that have cost us points - individual errors, guys not being healthy - all those things come into it. I think you saw a team tonight that was pretty good. Whoever's on the field, I was excited when we got the ball going forward, it was good to see. I’m forever optimistic. We've got a big, big hill to climb to make the playoffs, but we have to keep going, keep moving on."

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.