Fire

Fire's next game may be most important for rest of regular season

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USA TODAY

Fire's next game may be most important for rest of regular season

Fresh off a big win against a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference and the Fire now face another. It’s that time of year.

After picking up a crucial win in Montreal last weekend, the mood around the Fire at training this week was decidedly different. The weight of the losing streak had left the team and was replaced by newfound optimism about the stretch run of the regular season.

“It’s always good to get back on the winning side of things,” defender Matt Polster said on Wednesday. “I think now we have to treat every game like it’s a playoff game from here on out because it’s so tight.”

There are seven matches left for the Fire and few will be as big as Saturday’s against the New York Red Bulls. Three teams currently holding playoff spots remain on the Fire’s schedule and two of those are in the Eastern Conference. As far as jockeying for position, it’s this game against the Red Bulls and a Sept. 30 home match against New York City FC that hold the most weight.

The Red Bulls (12-10-4, 40 points) are fifth in the standings, but have at least one game in hand on each of the four teams above, including the Fire (13-9-5, 44 points). The Fire sit third. NYCFC is still a possible, although increasingly unreachable, target in second place, but the Red Bulls are a more imminent threat.

“It will be a tough match,” defender Brandon Vincent said. “The New York Red Bulls, whether it’s playing for playoffs or not, they are a good team. They bring out the high pressure and they’re a tough team to beat so we expect a battle and I think we got enough to compete.”

With both Polster and Vincent returning in Montreal, the Fire do have some reinforcements. However, Bastian Schweinsteiger is listed as out on the injury report after suffering a calf injury in that win in Quebec. Joao Meira is expected to miss his fourth straight game although he did return to the training field this week in a limited capacity.

Dax McCarty is expected to start after rejoining the team in training on Thursday. McCarty was with the U.S. national team for a pair of World Cup qualifiers, but did not see the field. For McCarty, this will mark his second match against his former team since being traded in the offseason. He assisted on the Fire’s only goal in a 2-1 loss in Red Bull Arena on April 29.

New York has its own injury problems with regular starters Aurelien Collin (defender), Mike Grella (midfielder) and Daniel Royer (midfielder) all out.

As always, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic emphasized the importance of the upcoming stretch of games. After hosting the Red Bulls, the Fire host D.C. United next week before two straight on the road at Philadelphia and San Jose.

“Wins like the one in Montreal help us and gives the team the right boost in order to prepare the next two home games that we have,” Paunovic said. “I think Red Bulls is one of the best teams in the league, very experienced in these kind of games and this part of the season.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

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.