Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Have the Fire been figured out?

fire-pk-imfc.jpg
USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: Have the Fire been figured out?

it's easy to blame injuries for the Chicago Fire's recent slide. It might even be justifiable.

However, a theme has begun to emerge in the team's recent defeats beyond the fact that they've all been on the road. It started when Orlando was able to hold off the Fire despite only playing with nine men in Florida back on June 4. It continued when FC Cincinnati shut out the Fire and won in penalties in the U.S. Open Cup. New York City FC pulled off a win despite playing down a man for a majority of the game.

It seems the problems that burned the Fire in the middle part of the season have cropped up more frequently as teams have evolved the tactics to bother them. MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle had his own take on the Fire's recent struggles:

Given that the Fire are going to win possession in most games as long as Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger are playing, teams have put less emphasis on trying to win the midfield battle and more emphasis on limiting the ways the Fire can hurt them. Before Wednesday's 3-0 loss at Montreal, a team built to play on the counter, the 3-1 loss in Columbus came as a result of turnovers and counters from the Crew. The Crew typically emphasize possession, but conceded it to the Fire and burned them on the break. Montreal did the same.

Here's a look at how the Fire's makeshift defense coped with Montreal's attack and where on earth Nemanja Nikolic has gone to.

New-look back line

There may not have been a good solution to being so shorthanded defensively, but it didn't look like Veljko Paunovic found one. With Brandon Vincent already out, Matt Polster going down a day before the game and Joao Meira going down with an injury five minutes into the game, it was an emergency situation for the defenders.

Johan Kappelhof slid to right back and Jonathan Campbell stepped into the starting lineup at center back. That meant when Christian Dean subbed in for Meira, none of the Fire's regular defenders were in their regular positions. Kappelhof was the only regular starter and he was playing at a different spot. That's basically a disaster scenario for Dean, who joined the Fire officially a week before the game. He stepped into a game five minutes after he started when he wasn't expecting to play that early and did so when the rest of the Fire's defense was out of sorts as well.

So naturally, Dean's first touch as a Fire player led to a Montreal goal. His attempted clearance isn't really that bad. It wasn't a scuff or a whiff, but it wasn't clean. Ignacio Piatti was in position to take advantage of the lucky break when it bounced off his chest. That's not good for Dean's confidence, but he did have some positive moments to go with some shaky ones.

Dean was credited with eight ball recoveries, second most on the team to McCarty. He did get burned by Matteo Mancosu in a one-on-one situation in the 28th minute, but Matt Lampson came up with a big save. Dean finished with 65 out of 77 passes completed and showed he can use size well in aerial challenges and has decent speed. Him and Campbell both had trouble with Ignacio Piatti and Mancosu on the break. In short, Dean wasn't put in a spot to succeed given the circumstanecs, but showed both why he has potential and why he wasn't able to break in as a regular for Vancouver.

Djordje Mihailovic's first start

One of the things that has been brought up as the Fire's weaknesses continue to show themselves is that the team doesn't have an central attacking midfielder. Michael de Leeuw has occupied this role, but is more of a forward than a playmaker.

Mihailovic, 18, has flashed his talent in substitute appearances, but was given a chance to be the solution to the Fire's problems in Montreal. No pressure, kid.

The Fire's midfield is built around deep-lying midfielders in McCarty and Schweinsteiger and Mihailovic seemed to struggle to get involved. He drifted all over the field, but didn't really make his mark on the game. He was active in pressing Montreal when needed.

Mihailovic completed 16 of 18 passes in the first half, but only three of the completed passes were forward and none were near the box. This isn't the impact a player in that position is supposed to have on a game. In the second half he moved wide right and completed eight of 15 passes.

It wasn't a memorable first start, but the good news is Mihailovic didn't have any glaring mistakes on the ball. He has the talent. Getting experience like he did on Wednesday will help him be more assertive in the future.

Nemanja Nikolic's goal drought

Speaking of players having trouble getting involved in the game, Nemanja Nikolic has had his fair share of relative inactivity during his now six-game goal drought.

Nikolic had led the league in shots and goals, but has fallen off in both categories. David Villa is now two goals ahead of Nikolic for the league lead with 18. Villa (103) and Giovinco (97) have surpassed Nikolic in shots (80).

The Hungarian striker has started every MLS game for the Fire this year. In 12 of the first 18 matches he had multiple shots on target. In the last six matches he hasn't done that once, with a total of four shots on target in those six matches and none in the last two.

Even when the Fire scored four against New England two games ago, Nikolic wasn't a big factor in the match. So how much of that is Nikolic and how much of that is the Fire's recent slump?

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave his view on that topic on Tuesday.

 

"This is no secret, Nemanja does his best work in the box," Rodriguez said. "So one thing that has not been as consistent or as much quality is our delivery of the ball to Nemanja in and around the area. That is a phase of the game that we have definitely not recovered since the (Gold Cup) break. Now, having said that, our goal against Columbus, if Michael doesn’t score, Nemanja does. He’s making the same run, he’s right in position. I think that’s more incumbent upon how we’re playing and what we’re doing than it is Nemanja himself.

"We have to better support him in and around the box for him to regain his form.”

Nikolic had one shot. It was a difficult header from just inside the penalty box when he was tightly marked. It barely registered as a scoring chance. That was one of two touches Nikolic had in the box against Montreal.

Nikolic dropped into midfield at times and completed 15 of 17 passes for the match. Five of those passes were in his own half. He had just two touches after halftime until he was subbed out in the 63rd minute. The service wasn't there and Nikolic isn't the kind of forward to go on a long run to create a chance or score on his own.

With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

schwein-117.jpg
USA TODAY

With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

Due to a calf injury, Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived at the training field later than the rest of his Fire teammates on a Tuesday in September. He sat down on a bench by himself and started singing a song in a foreign language.

It turned out to be a Serbian folk song he learned thanks to his wife, Serbian former tennis pro Anna Ivanovic.

During games Schweinsteiger is ultra competitive and always very serious. During practice and off the field, he is a bit of a goofball. Always cracking jokes and keeping things loose.

“I think that helps a lot because you see how he is on the field, he’s very serious, and he expects a lot of himself and of his teammates, but then off the field he’s very easy going,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said.

Schweinsteiger's return via a one-year deal was announced on Wednesday via reports from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and German outlet Bild. It's obviously a big deal for on-field reasons after Schweinsteiger helped revitalize the franchise in 2017. He also brings plenty of attention to the club in the form of fans from around the world and more media coverage of him and, by proxy, the team. However, his value goes beyond even that in a way that not everyone gets to see.

On the day he sang the Serbian folk song, Sept. 12, Schweinsteiger had missed the previous match due to the injury and was kept away from the training field that week. Even if he only stretched and jogged on that Tuesday, Schweinsteiger still seemed excited to return to the field.

He wasn’t able to play with his teammates so he turned to the few spectators, a few Fire staffers and myself, for his entertainment while he stretched in anticipation of his run. He asked each person their second favorite club team, the implication being the Fire would be the favorite team. Schweinsteiger said his was Partizan Belgrade “for family reasons,” another nod to Ivanovic.

“He’s got a really easy going, goofy demeanor about him,” McCarty said. “That helps the guys and that helps him relate to the guys.”

If Schweinsteiger isn’t the team’s class clown, it would be Matt Lampson. The goalkeeper is willing to make a joke out of just about anything. The two even sparred on an occasion after a training session.

In May, Lampson was being interviewed by two reporters and had his back to the training field. Schweinsteiger decided to kick balls at Lampson to distract him and hit him in the calf on the second try from about 20 yards away. As Lampson turned to see what happened, Schweinsteiger growled as a show of pride in his accomplishment.

Naturally, when it was Schweinsteiger’s turn to be interviewed, Lampson got even. He hit Schweinsteiger with a ball and the German stopped, yelled “Matt Lampson!” (sidenote: hearing Schweinsteiger’s German accent exclaim an Anglo name was very amusing) and then proceeded to blame Lampson in jest to the reporters for giving up two goals in the previous game.

“He certainly likes to have a good time and it’s nice that he doesn’t take himself too seriously because when you have a guy that’s won everything in the world of soccer it would be easy for him to be a prick,” Lampson said. “But he’s awesome. Not only when it comes to the locker room, but also just in terms of me learning from him. The time that he takes to teach and provide me with knowledge and the rest of the guys with knowledge is pretty remarkable of him because he doesn’t have to do that. He wants to win and he wants to help everybody else. He wants to help us become better players.”

As for who’s the team’s class clown?

“He’s a clown,” Lampson said. “I’ll let him have the title.”

Schweinsteiger has shown his willingness to be loose with the media as well, even though he did on one occasion after a loss decline to talk to reporters. He will give a thoughtful answer, but isn’t afraid to make fun of a question or joke with reporter.

As an in-season addition, his locker is at the end of the Fire locker room inside Toyota Park. Last season, his was next to Joao Meira. After one game Schweinsteiger, who is typically one of the first out of the shower, already had a crowd of reporters around him. The semi-circle crowd around Schweinsteiger meant Meira, who was in only his towel and shower sandals, couldn’t get to his locker. Schweinsteiger laughed and pointed to Meira’s locker and says, “Here’s your seat, Joao.”

It’s not all just laughs with Schweinsteiger. Another locker room occurence that stood out was when he decided to take control over reporter etiquette.

After Schweinsteiger’s first few matches with the Fire, the crowd of reporters was especially large. A woman reporter asked a question, but got talked over by another reporter. Schweinsteiger stopped and said “No, she was asking.” The woman laughed it off, called Schweinsteiger a gentleman, and then asked her question.

Schweinsteiger has also had some positive interactions with the women of the Chicago Red Stars. The Red Stars use the same training field as the Fire and take the field after the Fire leave so there is often some overlap for Fire players who stay a bit late or are slow to leave the field.

In June, Schweinsteiger stayed late after practice and the Red Stars had already started warming up. He decided to start playing with the Red Stars, kicking back and forth with Stephanie McCaffrey.

He would talk to some of the other players and stayed to watch the Red Stars practice, seemingly mesmerized by it. Later in the season, he was wearing a Red Stars jacket while signing a series of autographs for team giveaways.

Schweinsteiger’s presence will always be a big deal on the field and from a marketing perspective, but his personality with the team has shown on several occasions to also be valuable to the Fire.

“It helps, just charisma in the locker room and everywhere, it’s very helpful and it helps the other guys to be in a good mood just to feed from that energy that is coming from him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “It gives the team a default mood, a positive mood, everyday and that’s what you need to work. That’s what you need to live together and spend time together.”

Schweinsteiger is back for 2018. Let’s see what kind of amusing interactions he will provide this year.

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

sanchez-115.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.