As Fire's defense has solidified, offensive woes surface

As Fire's defense has solidified, offensive woes surface

Entering the season arguably the biggest perceived weakness of the Chicago Fire was the team’s defense.

Coming off a 2015 campaign in which the team allowed the most goals in the league and entering 2016 with an all new defense, the Fire weren’t expected to get three shutouts in a row and certainly not so early in the season. Either the new faces weren’t going to be significant enough upgrades or they would take time to build the cohesion needed for a good defense.

Even after the first match of the season the defense didn’t look improved and coach Veljko Paunovic said as much. However, following Sunday’s 0-0 draw in Yankee Stadium (the first ever scoreless draw in Yankee Stadium for New York City FC), the Fire now have three shutouts in a row and a shutout streak (356 minutes) that is the second longest in the team’s history (the record is 395 minutes).

So of course now that the defense appears to have gone from weakness to strength, the offense has gone from what looked threatening after scoring three in the opener to listless. The Fire didn’t put any shots on goal on Sunday and have scored just two goals in the past four matches.

“We have to understand that this is going to be a long season and streaks like this may happen again,” Paunovic said when asked about the offensive struggles in his weekly conference call with media on Tuesday. “We’ve improved very well (in defense) and we can see in the data we didn’t concede any goals in the last three games, which is very important for us. Still we have to know that we have to convert opportunities and create more opportunities than we are doing so far, but it’s not frustrating. That’s part of building the team, part of the long season and we can also understand that every time the team has that solid defense it helps during the season to build a successful year and reach all objectives and goals.”

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The absence of David Accam has certainly loomed large. Accam had two goals and an assist in the first two matches. The Fire have scored one goal, which came while the Fire were playing up a man after a red card, in the three matches without him.

It also sounds like Accam may miss another week. Paunovic has repeatedly said how important Accam is to the team and mentioned that again when explaining how he is progressing from injury.

“It’s tricky because we want him as soon as possible, but we also don’t want to push him in order to not make the injury worse,” Paunovic said of Accam. “So far he is improving well, but still we are not sure he is going to be ready.”

The Fire’s recent stretch of low-scoring matches raises the question if this is what the Paunovic era will look like. Is he actually a very defensive, pragmatic coach?

“Every team has some strengths and some weaknesses,” Paunovic said. “I believe that in order to sell your strengths you have to work on your weakness. I think that in the first game we saw what our weaknesses are and so far we are working to fix those and I think we are improving very well.

“You have to score, for that you have to control the game, but sometimes that control starts from a good defensive system and from that building up to progress to be very, very offensive.”

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.