Fire

John Goossens' return could be key for the Fire

John Goossens' return could be key for the Fire

For much of this season the Chicago Fire have struggled not just to score goals, but to create chances.

The Fire moved out of last place in Major League Soccer in goals scored after putting in three in a loss at Philadelphia last week, but are still last place in total shots (157) and shots on target (43). For context, the team just above the Fire in shots on target is San Jose with 60 and Vancouver leads the league with 109.

In Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup victory against Columbus there was a welcome face starting in the midfield for the first time since April 16: John Goossens. Goossens made his return from a sprained LCL in Philadelphia, but came off the bench in that match.

Goossens' impact against the Crew was immediately seen in his assist to David Accam on the opening goal in the seventh minute. Goossens got control of the ball in his own half and was able to dribble forward into Columbus' third. When the defense finally closed him down, Goossens was able to weave through a pair of defenders and hit Accam with a pass. Accam did the rest of the work with an impressive finish, but it's reasonable to think no other player on the Fire is able to get the ball to Accam in that spot, at least not in the same way.

“I think he’s calm and comfortable on the ball,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said of Goossens. “He has actually very good offensive perception of the game.

“He was relief for us when we were building out of the back. In the moments when we had to win and have a progression in our build up he showed up and that’s very important and positive for the team.”

Goossens had a number of opportunities with the ball and the Fire’s pair of speedy forwards, Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, running in front of him.

“It was really easy for me once I get the ball behind their midfield, between their midfield and defensive line,” Goossens said. “I had all the time to turn and to look for those two fast guys. They scored two amazing goals.”

Goossens subbed out of the game after 60 minutes, which was expected given it was his first start in more than two months.

The problem so far is that Goossens hasn't been able to stay healthy this season. He hasn't played a full 90 minutes yet this season and has only made seven appearances this season.

That said, when Goossens has played he has made a difference. The assist to Accam was his third of the season. In addition, the team has performed its best with Goossens on the field. Even before Tuesday's 2-1 win, Goossens had the best plus-minus, to borrow a hockey stat, on the Fire.

When Goossens has been on the field in MLS play, the Fire have a plus-two goal differential. Of course there are a lot of factors that go into that with 11 players on the field, but plus-two is a notable difference from the Fire's overall goal differential of minus-six. The only other player on the team with a positive plus-minus is Arturo Alvarez at plus-one.

“We missed him,” Accam said. “He is one of our creative players and I’m really happy we have him back on the pitch. If we get Arturo back then we are perfect for us strikers because we need the midfielders to feed us good balls and today Goossens did that. Hopefully that will continue.”

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.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

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.