Fire

Joey Calistri looking to break through with the Fire

Joey Calistri looking to break through with the Fire

There are a lot of young players on the Chicago Fire and only a few of them can get on the field right now.

The Fire have five rookies and four second-year pros, if you count 20-year-old Brazilian Rodrigo Ramos in the second-year group. Out of those nine players, Matt Polster enteredhe season as an established starter while Ramos and rookie Jonathan Campbell appear to have solidified themselves as starters for now.

Rookie Brandon Vincent started the first three matches, but hasn't played since. Joey Calistri and Alex Morrell, both rookies, have been able to earn late substitute roles on multiple occasions, but no starts. Rookie Drew Conner and second-year players Patrick Doody and Collin Fernandez haven't played at all although Doody and Conner are on loan with Saint Louis FC.

Just looking at that group, it shows how difficult is has been for the younger players on the team to earn regular minutes. When asked about Calistri specifically earlier this week, coach Veljko Paunovic spoke about the importance of giving playing time to young players.

"For him I think it’s important that he can go through this process of developing and getting minutes in the league, (for that) to go smoothly," Paunovic said. "We are working on that and as soon as he is ready and as soon as we believe he can help the team on the field we will not have any issue to make him play.

"We also have a lot of young, talented players that we want to mold them. We also know for the young players it is very important to have minutes and where we can’t give them those minutes we will look for opportunities to loan those young players so they can get either with our affiliate or with another club in the league where we can give them for a short-term loan. This is our approach for Calistri and all other young players that we have on the squad that are not having enough minutes. We believe that is important for young players."

Paunovic came to the Fire after coaching the Serbian U-20 team, which gives him youth development coaching experience. When he talks about getting young players minutes, he knows it's important.

Calistri subbed in after the 80th minute in each of the team's first three matches, but hasn't played since. With a stretch of four games in 11 days coming up in May, squad rotation will be necessary, but Paunovic said he doesn't expect Calistri's role to change much during that period.

"(Paunovic) just keeps preaching work ethic and hard work and keep working on my finishing, my killer instinct," Calistri said. "That’s stuff in training and when I get into a scrimmage that I try to focus on."

The former Northwestern forward is still learning the professional game and is trying to take advantage of his opportunities as they come, even if they are for less than 10 minutes at a time.

"It’s a great learning experience for me. I think that’s probably the most important part is that I’m learning a lot from all the guys and Pauno and the staff," Calistri said. "For me it’s all about work rate and energy and trying to bring a little spark. If I’m coming in in the 80th, 85th minute, most of the guys are going to be pretty tired. Just trying to run at some guys, get in behind, make it tough for the guys who have been out there."

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.