Heedful of NYCFC's high-press system, Fire hope to wrest first road win


Heedful of NYCFC's high-press system, Fire hope to wrest first road win

After subsisting on a less than favorable start to their respective seasons, the Chicago Fire (3-5-0, nine points) and New York City FC (1-6-3, six points) have yet to leave a sizable imprint on Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference.

Winless in the league since a 1-0 victory over the expansion side in the reverse fixture, the Men in Red travel to the Bronx Friday night for their first-ever visit to Yankee Stadium, marking the duo's second and final encounter this season.  

Nearly a week after characterizing the Fire's start to the 2015 MLS campaign as "topsy-turvy," head coach Frank Yallop is drumming up a plan to curtail Jason Kreis' high-pressure system within the established tight field dimensions, which, by MLS and FIFA standards, only just meet the 70-by-110 yard requirement.

“It’s tight. We’ve condensed the field and we’ve made the players who are going to start the game aware of their [NYCFC’s] pressing," said Yallop at Fire training on Wednesday. “They’re going to press us and it’s a tight field; there’s not a lot of room out there. You don’t have time on the ball.”

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Time on the ball - difficult as it may be to come by for the Fire - could conceivably be a luxury that may not be too much cause for concern provided Yallop's outfit put in a shrewd defensive performance on Friday.

"As a defender, you need to know you're going to have to defend the box," said captain Jeff Larentowicz. "Balls are going to be served in, they're going to be on top of you." 

Through the first 10 matches, NYCFC own the second highest possession percentage in MLS, yet, like the Fire, it has only afforded them seven goals. Since topping the New England Revolution in their home opener on March 15, Kreis' side has collected two points from 24 available. In an all-out attempt to convert possession into goals, Kreis' mission to bestow the dogged, attacking philosophy that won him ample praise at Real Salt Lake has yet to amount to a finished product.

On the back of a crushing defeat to newfound rival New York Red Bulls on Sunday, NYCFC will likely impart its brio right from the start, with Joliet native Ned Grabavoy and Mix Diskerud patrolling the midfield. With Matt Watson likely to miss out on the trip and Michael Stephens still on the mend, Matt Polster and his undetermined collaborator in the pith of Yallop's midfield will be put to the test in a game of pinball on a patchy Yankee Stadium outfield.          

[RELATED: Fire prepares for seven-match stretch vs. Eastern Conference]

"It's going to be a little bit more chaotic than you would see on a bigger field where there's more space to operate," Stephens said. "The ball is going to be bouncing a lot and there's going to be a lot of 50-50 balls."

Stephens, who missed the last three matches with an ankle injury, completed his second full week of training and disclosed he is nearing his peak fitness level. Should he be available, the dynamism and creativity the 26-year-old Chicago native exhibited before being sidelined could be the stroke of luck Yallop and the Men in Red need to come away with their first three points on their travels.

“We've got to press them as well," Yallop said. "It is what it is. We’re just looking forward to getting out there and getting ourselves back on track.”

Hear what Yallop, Stephens and Larentowicz had to say in the video above. Be sure to follow @CSNChicagoFire for live, in-game updates during the match, which is slated for a 6 p.m. CT kickoff. 

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.