Fire

Fire's schedule is slow now, but not for long

Fire's schedule is slow now, but not for long

Right now it’s the calm before the storm for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire were off this weekend and will return against D.C. United on April 30. That match will conclude a stretch in which five of the first seven games of 2016 took place at Toyota Park.

Then the Fire will have to sit through another off weekend. The weird part in the schedule is that two off weekends out of three are followed by a stretch of four matches in 11 days.

Wednesday matches at Vancouver and the New York Red Bulls sandwich a Saturday, May 14, match in New England. Three road games against three 2015 playoff teams will be tough for the Fire, and shows how important it was for the club to rack up points from this early season stretch. A home match against Houston on May 21 caps off four matches in four different cities and three different time zones, in 11 days. Going from playing one match in the span of 24 days to playing four in 11 is a tough transition that came about through a weird quirk in the MLS schedule.

As much as the current lull gives coach Veljko Paunovic extra time in practice, the team had multiple two-a-days this past week, the crowded batch of games looming will test the team’s depth.

“It’s a great opportunity to increase load,” Paunovic said of the off week on Tuesday. “Also we believe we have to do more of the full field games and more situations from the game where all those pieces that we are talking about we have to put them all together and work on the field in details and how we want to play and manage this next game.”

Paunovic had the team play a full field intrasquad scrimmage on Friday at UIC. It was red vs. white and the red team won 2-1. The red team got goals from John Goossens and Gilberto, on a penalty kick, while Razvan Cocis scored on an assist from Arturo Alvarez for the white team.

Analyzing the lineups for an intrasquad scrimmage is difficult, but there are a few things worth mentioning. First, that’s Eric Gehrig playing right back. Joao Meira and Academy player Mauricio Pineda, one of the Academy's top prospects, paired at center back and Gehrig, on his way back from injury, played on the right.

Also, Sean Johnson’s return to goal is notable, even if he hasn’t played yet in 2016. Johnson had not been able to train with the goalkeepers for a couple weeks, instead playing as a field player, due to a wrist injury. Matt Lampson has been the starter all year while Patrick McLain started on Saturday for St. Louis FC to get him some game action.

While the games aren’t coming often now, Paunovic will have to rotate the lineup during that busy stretch in May. Players like Gehrig and Brandon Vincent, who played next to three other defenders in that scrimmage who have become regular starters, will likely be called upon for bigger roles than they have recently. That stretch in the Fire’s schedule will be tough for the team to get results, but it should also be a great opportunity to learn a lot more about the team.

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.