Fire

MLS All-Star Game was a big event, but it's up to the Fire to turn Chicago into a soccer city

MLS All-Star Game was a big event, but it's up to the Fire to turn Chicago into a soccer city

The MLS All-Star Game was the marquee event of a multiple day onslaught of soccer in Chicago.

The league sent all of its marketing, promotional and financial muscle behind making it an extravaganza with the idea of boosting the profile of the sport, and by proxy the Chicago Fire, within the city. Ultimately, the game and the result were insignificant towards that goal.

While the All-Star Game won’t single handedly turn around the visibility and public perception of soccer and the Fire in Chicago, it was a marquee event on a big stage with 61,428 fans at Soldier Field and the Fire got to play host.

Before the game Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez called it a once in a lifetime event. On top of that, the Fire had the player who turned into the face of the event, Bastian Schweinsteiger.

When it was announced that the game was coming to Soldier Field back in January, the Fire were still viewed as a laughing stock in the league. Back-to-back last place seasons will do that.

The Fire had already made some notable offseason additions in Dax McCarty, Juninho and Nemanja Nikolic, but by adding Schweinsteiger the team had someone capable of being a significant part of an event like this. The move had already been in the works, but wasn’t finalized until after the season began in March.

Schweinsteiger captained the MLS All-Stars and was one of two Fire players to start, alongside Johan Kappelhof. Only Toronto FC, with the trio of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, had more starters. McCarty and Nikolic entered after halftime and Schweinsteiger and Kappelhof exited. McCarty played a role in the MLS All-Stars’ lone goal.

The Fire had more players than any other MLS team on the roster, including the fan-voted captain. That the team is having a good season and had so many players worthy of All-Star selection is more valuable than the game itself being in Chicago. Having those two things at the same time is a bonus.

“I think we are putting the pieces together in our club,” Fire and MLS All-Star coach Veljko Paunovic said. “I think it’s very important to represent the community, starting with our club in the MLS. We had some progression. I think that also helps. Obviously the team is doing well, but being on the right path doesn’t mean you did it all. We have to continue with our process, with everything we have done so far. Improve our team, our results. From there in the coming years I believe we can light up the rest of the critical mass that is needed in order to not only have Chicago as one of the best sports cities in the United States, but we are missing soccer. We want soccer to be important in this city and in this community and obviously in this country.”

The MLS All-Star Game was a showcase for the league and the Fire in Chicago, with Real Madrid drawing in more spectators and eyeballs. It gave more attention to the winning season the Fire are enjoying, but the more significant events for soccer in Chicago occurred when Nikolic, McCarty and especially Schweinsteiger joined the team.

“I think that it was great,” Nikolic said. “The city deserved this game played here and Chicago is a city of sport. People like sports a lot here and they deserve to see these kinds of games.”

The All-Star Game is a glorified exhibition between a team that is in its preseason and a collection of players that had less than three days to turn into a team. It won't change soccer's standing in the city. There are already plenty of fans of the sport in the city, but that critical mass that Paunovic spoke of is likely only something that the Fire can chip away at over time.

Oh, by the way, Real Madrid won in penalty kicks after a 1-1 game.

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.