Fire

Leo Messi steals the show with hat trick in Soldier Field

Leo Messi steals the show with hat trick in Soldier Field

With all respect to the rest of Argentina's very talented national team, Friday's 5-0 win against Panama was all about one man.

Leo Messi, probably the greatest player of this generation and in the discussion for best ever, played his first competitive match in the United States and Chicago's Soldier Field got to play host.

Messi missed Argentina's Copa America Centenario opener against Chile on Monday due to a back injury suffered in the lead up to the tournament. That meant Chicago got to witness his debut, even if it came off the bench.

Messi didn't disappoint the crowd of 53,885 fans. After coming on in the 62nd minute, Messi scored seven minutes later. Gonzalo Higuain elegantly blocked a clearance with his face to spring Messi for an open chance in the box, which he put away.

Then Messi got fouled just outside the Panama box. Initially most of the fans in the stadium jeered that someone hacked down the beloved superstar. However, it offered another opportunity for Messi to shine.

The ball was just to the right of Jaime Penedo’s goal. It was a great spot for the left-footed Messi to go for goal and that’s exactly what he did. Penedo never had a chance and the crowd erupted again.

As if that wasn’t enough, Messi showed his trademark ball control in tight spaces to free himself in the box while under pressure to finish off his hat trick.

Turns out Messi was worth all the chants for his name. Those started in the 23rd minute, with the crowd hoping to urge Argentina manager Gerardo Martino to sub on Messi. Then it started up again, and again and again. Once Messi starting scoring, the chant of his name was no longer calling for him to come in, but was now one of admiration.

All of a sudden the initial disappointment that Messi didn’t start went away. Argentina manager Gerardo Martino said on the day before the match that Messi would play, but that became in doubt when he wasn’t listed in the starting lineup.

“I never thought that Leo would not be playing,” Martino said through a translator. “I thought he would play about 30 minutes and he did.”

Panama was playing down a man since the 31st minute due to a second yellow card to Anibal Godoy. As Panama manager Hernan Dario Gomez said, his team was tired and then "the monster” Messi came on, which was a recipe for disaster.

“Messi scores and this makes us feel more tired,” Gomez said. “If you make a mistake and Messi is there, he’s going to score.”

He did score. Three times. In Chicago. In a competitive match. That’s how legends are made.

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.