Fire

Five questions for the Fire in 2016

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Five questions for the Fire in 2016

The 2016 Major League Soccer season is just three days away. Every team’s opening match will be on Sunday, March 6.

The Chicago Fire kick things off at 1 p.m. against New York City FC on CSN Chicago. What will the team look like when it takes the field?

So many new faces have come in. More than half the roster was acquired in the offseason. That makes for a lot of question marks about the team.

With that in mind here are five of the biggest questions facing the team as the 2016 season unfolds.

How will the brand new defense fare?

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said reworking and improving the defense was a top priority in the offseason. Only two defenders, Eric Gehrig and Patrick Doody, are back from last season. First round draft picks Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell, internationals Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos and MLS free agent Michael Harrington have been added.

After conceding the most goals in the league in 2015 (58), how this unit fares will have a massive influence on how successful the Fire are in 2016.

[MORE: Watch the season premiere of Fire All-Access]

How will Paunovic’s system look?

First-year coach Veljko Paunovic has the tough task of turning around a last place team with a largely rebuilt roster. The changes may be for the best, but that means the team will have to learn quickly how to play in his style. Based on the preseason it appears the Fire will try to build out of the back and high press. Paunovic showed some tactical flexibility, something he has talked about throughout the preseason, in Saturday’s win at Portland. How well his adjustments and style work will be something to watch.

What midseason moves will be made?

Rodriguez said on Monday that the team is still looking to acquire players and is in negotiations with some foreign-based players. After focusing on defense in the offseason, Rodriguez said that central midfield is the new priority. In addition, there aren’t many wide players on the roster. Only David Accam, Arturo Alvarez and rookies Joey Calistri and Alex Morrell appear to be primarily wide players.

On top of that the Fire only have two forwards, three if you count Accam as a forward, in Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike. Rodriguez has mentioned wanting to add depth at forward, but that sounds like a lower priority at the moment.

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Can the young players step up?

The Fire have five rookies and three second-year players. Nine players are 23 or younger when you throw in 20-year-old Ramos. Given how much has been said about Paunovic’s history working with younger players, it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

How much will they play? Will they make notable improvement throughout the season?

If the preseason is any indicator, only two or three of the younger players will start the season opener. If more are able to crack the starting lineup in the short-term that could be a sign of Paunovic’s willingness to play youth.

Will the Fire make the playoffs?

This is ultimately the biggest question. None of the above matters as much as the bottom line.

The Fire have been a struggling franchise, going six years with just one postseason appearance. A playoff appearance would restore some excitement in the fan base and give hope that the team is headed in the right direction. Enough pieces have been added to believe things will change, but how much improvement can be made in one offseason?

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.