Fire

MLS needs its own Chicago-St. Louis rivalry

MLS needs its own Chicago-St. Louis rivalry

The Chicago-St. Louis sports rivalry has been on display in recent days with the Blackhawks-Blues playoff series and the Cubs making the first trip to Busch Stadium earlier this week.

Cubs-Cardinals is one of the better rivalries in baseball and when both teams are competitive, as they are now, it has even more fire. Blackhawks-Blues has been rejuvenated with recent playoff meetings.

Meanwhile, on the soccer side there is no Major League Soccer team in St. Louis to provide the Chicago Fire with that same marquee matchup, but that could be changing.

MLS commissioner Don Garber said that the league wants to expand to 28 teams. The league currently sits at 20 teams. Atlanta and Minnesota plan to join next season and Los Angeles FC and the Miami franchise headed by David Beckham aren’t much further behind. That brings the league to 24 teams and Garber’s comments reopened expansion competition with four new spots in the league available.

Hawks-Blues and Cubs-Cards over the last few days has shown that the Chicago-St. Louis sports rivalry is strong and MLS needs to be a part of that. The Fire need a true rival and St. Louis’ introduction to MLS would be an instant rival for the Fire given the heated rivalries in other sports.

The closest MLS teams to Chicago are Columbus, which is over five hours away, and Kansas City, which is an eight-hour drive away and no longer in the same conference as the Fire. Minnesota’s addition to the league will add another Midwestern team which Chicago sports fans will be familiar seeing as a divisional rival, but odds are that team will head to the Western Conference, limiting meetings with the Fire to just once a year.

St. Louis has played a massive role in the history of soccer in this country. A glimpse of that was shown in the movie “The Game of Their Lives,” where a group of players from The Hill neighborhood in St. Louis featured on the 1950 U.S. World Cup team which beat England. On the collegiate level, St. Louis University has won 10 national championships in men’s soccer.

So what are the chances of St. Louis getting a team?

SI.com’s Brian Straus broke down the current expansion candidates. Straus said Sacramento is practically a lock, but referred to St. Louis as the best bet for team No. 26. There has been talk of MLS in St. Louis for years, but the Rams’ departure seems to have sparked interest a bit more. Garber admitted Thursday that Sacramento and St. Louis are the frontrunners.

Currently Saint Louis FC, which plays in suburban Fenton, is the top soccer team in the market. They play in the USL and are the Fire’s affiliate. Good crowds for that minor league team and for international games, either European summer friendlies or U.S. National Team games, have shown the interest for soccer is there.

It’s always a matter of finding an ownership group and a stadium deal when it comes to MLS expansion. If those two things come together, St. Louis will have a team because both the league and the city appear interested.

If and when it happens, it could give Fire fans a home game or two to circle on the calendar every year, which is something currently lacking.

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.