Fire

Fire's late rally falls short in narrow loss to Red Bulls

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Fire's late rally falls short in narrow loss to Red Bulls

The Fire came close to staging a late rally in the second half, but were unable to complete the comeback in a narrow, 2-1 defeat to the New York Red Bulls at Toyota Park on Sunday.

Two first-half strikes from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, despite Gilberto's second-half tally, were enough for the Red Bulls (18-10-6, 60 points) to clinch an away victory and raise the MLS Supporters' Shield trophy in front of an announced crowd of 19,850.

Interim head coach Brian Bliss made his statement clear regarding the Men in Red’s poor mentality during last week’s 4-0 defeat to D.C. United, and implemented a handful of personnel changes, with goalkeeper Alec Kann deputizing for Jon Busch. Matt Polster replaced Lovel Palmer at right back, Chris Ritter - who came off in the 21st minute with an apparent head injury - stood in for Daneil Cyrus at center back and Patrick Doody returned to left back in place of Joevin Jones, who occupied a wide midfield role in place of David Accam. Matt Watson also relieved Michael Stephens in central midfield. 

[RELATED: Fire stress mental approach ahead of season finale]

In his first MLS start, Kann's nerves were put to the test early on with a flurry of sloppy clearances in the opening minutes. The 25-year-old was kept in check by the Red Bulls, and was forced into his first save on Wright-Phillips' effort in the seventh minute.

Ninety seconds later, a familiar scenario came back to haunt the hosts. Kljestan drove in a corner-kick delivery to Damien Perrinelle, whose flick-on header was sent to the back post to an unmarked Wright-Phillips, who tapped in for an early Red Bulls lead. 

Ten minutes before the halftime break, the visitors doubled their advantage. Fire veteran Patrick Nyarko was adjudged to have unlawfully pushed down Mike Grella in a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge in the box and conceded a penalty kick in the process, which Kljestan coolly slotted past Kann for his third tally from the spot in three meetings between the two teams this season.

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After maintaining 59 percent of possession in the opening 45, the Fire emerged from the halftime interval with their backs still against the wall. Gilberto showed more conviction in front of goal, sending a bending effort toward Robles in the 56th minute before collecting a long ball from Doody at the edge of the area in the 68th, chesting down and volleying a shot toward Robles, who did well to parry aside.

Second-half substitute Accam ringed a side-footed shot off the post in the 73rd minute before Gilberto's persistence was rewarded five minutes later. Doody streaked down the left flank and sent a looping ball toward the back post. Nyarko headed down for the Brazilian to acrobatically finish past Robles from close range to cut the Red Bulls' lead in half.

Despite throwing numbers forward in the latter stages, Bliss' group was unable to pull level. At the sound of the final whistle, some players stood in agony, others strolled around the field applauding the fan base. By the end of the night, the Fire (8-20-6, 30 points) were left disheartened, but perhaps lifted by the notion of what may lie ahead under new leadership.

Chicago Fire Starting XI (subs)

Alec Kann; Matt Polster, Jeff Larentowicz, Chris Ritter (Daneil Cyrus, 21'), Patrick Doody; Patrick Nyarko, Matt Watson (Kennedy Igboananike, 84'), Razvan Cocis, Joevin Jones (David Accam, 58'); Harry Shipp; Gilberto    

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.