Michael de Leeuw scores game-winner in his first Fire start

Michael de Leeuw scores game-winner in his first Fire start

Out of all the new players the Chicago Fire since the offseason, Michael de Leeuw was the only one that had an in-person introductory press conference.

Some of that was circumstance, but de Leeuw gave an early glimpse into why he was worth the fuss. He scored the only goal in the Fire's 1-0 win against Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday.

After enduring an hour-forty-five-minute weather delay at Toyota Park, de Leeuw's tap-in in the 19th minute stood as the only goal of the game. He made his first start for the Fire (4-8-5, 17 points) and scored his first goal with the team. Razvan Cocis got to the endline on the left side and centered the ball to de Leeuw, who only had to tap the ball into an open net.

"If you can score in your first home game, that’s always great," de Leeuw said. "But I couldn’t miss that one.

"Raz gave me a perfect assist.”

De Leeuw played up top as a target forward. On the goal was able to get on the end of a cross, something coach Veljko Paunovic said the Fire have needed all season.

“We had a lot of guys trying to develop that role of the player who will be in the box and take advantage of a lot of crosses," Paunovic said “We need somebody to be there to score those goals and convert those opportunities.”

Having a different type of forward, as opposed to the speedy David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, does give the Fire a different dynamic to its attack. The Dutch forward is still trying to get a feel for his teammates and they are trying to get used to him. On Wednesday, chances for the Fire were hard to come by, but de Leeuw was in the right spot when he needed to be.

“The confidence is high because you score in your second game," de Leeuw said. “I think they know what kind of player I am, but I think we have to play more games so they understand me and I understand them. You can train it, but in the games you always get the different situations. I think they know what kind of player I am and if I score goals then they know, give the ball in the box, give it to Michael. I have to show them.”

The goal was the only shot on goal for either team in the first half. Sporting Kansas City (8-9-4, 28 points) had six shots in the first half, including a Jacob Peterson shot off the post just before halftime. The Fire went into halftime with one shot and one goal.

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Sporting continued to put the pressure on in the second half, but was not able to find a goal. KC held a more than two-to-one edge in time of possession and a 19-3 advantage in shots. Sporting manager Peter Vermes thought a second minute goal by Dom Dwyer was incorrectly called back for offside, and replays showed he probably was right. Vermes also thought there was a second whistle from a referee that caused some hesitation from his players on the restart that led to de Leeuw's goal. Both breaks went the Fire's way.

Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson came up with a pair of big saves late to preserve the shutout, both came on dives to his left. He stopped a Brad Davis free kick in the 80th minute and denied a Dom Dwyer header in the 87th minute.

“The ball came across and I was able to turn and get set," Johnson said of the save on Dwyer's header. "The whole game I think we battled, we showed we can withstand the test of time in a game. Once you get the goal you always look to push for second. There comes a time in the game where the team is going to push numbers forward and I think everybody dug in tonight and it was a complete team performance.”

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic made five changes from Saturday’s 1-0 loss in Toronto, including having two stalwarts start on the bench. Neither Johan Kappelhof, who had played every minute of league play this season, nor Kennedy Igboananike, who had started every league match, started. Rodrigo Ramos and John Goossens, who both have made an impact in recent games, also did not start. Goossens, Ramos and Kappelhof all came on as substitutes.

The Fire return to action Saturday at league-leading FC Dallas.

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason


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


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.