Fire

In losing big showdown, Fire see why Toronto is best team in MLS

In losing big showdown, Fire see why Toronto is best team in MLS

Saturday night was a big occasion for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire hosted league-leading Toronto FC in a meeting of two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings. A crowd of 21,891, a Toyota Park record for a Fire regular season game, was there to see the improved Fire take on TFC’s deep and talented roster that features Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

The tension of a big game was clear in the reactions from the crowd and the large section of traveling Toronto fans. The sellout home crowd was raucous, but couldn’t will the Fire to a win or even a draw.

The Fire simply ran into a better team in the 3-1 loss. Now the Fire are nine points behind Toronto with nine games to go and are in all likelihood out of the Supporters’ Shield race.

“I always say Toronto is doing a great job,” Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “They have up front Giovinco, Altidore. That’s a different category.”

Now the Fire’s focus turns to securing a good playoff seed and chasing down New York City FC for the second spot, and with it the first-round bye. The Fire’s club record nine-game home winning streak is a thing of the past and now the Fire have lost three in a row and five of six.

Given the recent schedule, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Four of those came on the road and losing to Toronto is no shame, even if it came at home. The Fire aren’t suddenly a bad team again, but they have fallen off from the team’s fast start to the summer.

“We played the first half of the season maybe over our limit, more than expected I would say, so we did a great job,” Schweinsteiger said. “Now, we can see what we are missing in our game and we have to find a way to come back and to win a game and we have to play all on a little bit better level.”

Three-game losing streaks have been very rare in Schweinsteiger’s career. The German played for Bayern Munich, the German national team and Manchester United. That’s the bluest of blue bloods in the sport. A three-game losing stretch for any of those teams is a full-blown crisis. Losing five of six? That’s something different for Schweinsteiger.

“Yes, it is,” Schweinsteiger said. “It is very frustrating, very disappointing. I absolutely don’t like that. It’s new.”

So is Schweinsteiger worried about the team’s recent slump?

“If you don’t win games, don’t make points, in a way yes,” he said.

While Schweinsteiger isn’t used to losing this regularly, the Fire are still in a decent position. They are still almost certainly going to make the playoffs and the schedule will get easier. Three of the next four are back at Toyota Park and two of those are against the last place team in each conference, Minnesota and D.C.

Coach Veljko Paunovic is well aware that teams go through streaks, both good and bad, through an MLS season.

“This is like a marathon,” Paunovic said. “Things like this happen and you just have to stay positive and you actually have to know that every team in the league has these kind of moments. They come and they go so we just have to believe, keep working and keep the mood.”

Toronto beat the Fire with Giovinco, a former league MVP, not being much of a factor until he put the game away with a goal in the 90th minute. Altidore was very effective in holdup play and distribution, but only had one shot. With neither of TFC's highly-paid, talented strikers playing decisive roles in the match, the Fire still lost by two goals.

The Fire, which also lost 3-1 in Toronto back in April, got a glimpse of what the bar is at the top of the league and did so in front of a playoff-like atmosphere.

“It was a great rehearsal for us, playing against one of the best teams we could face in the playoffs,” Paunovic said.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

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AP

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.