Fire

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

The Chicago Fire's unbeaten run at Toyota Park is now a thing of the past.

The Fire couldn't hold off league-leading Toronto FC and are now nine points below TFC in the standings. If the two teams are to meet in the playoffs, the Fire will have to improve on some things, but there were positives from the Fire's perspective.

Here's a look at some of the key match ups on the field from Saturday's 3-1 win for the Reds.

Jozy Altidore vs. Christian Dean

On the surface, Jozy Altidore had a quiet game for Toronto. He only had one shot and it was blocked.

However, Altidore put on a clinic on how a forward can be effective without being involved directly in scoring opportunities. His hold up and back-to-goal play were key to reliever pressure for Toronto and he allowed his teammates to play off of him.

Altidore’s ability to win aerial duels and 50-50 balls meant Toronto didn’t have to play out of the back if it didn’t want to. If the defense was under too much pressure, Toronto still had a good opportunity to keep the ball and have something positive happen with a decently directed clearance towards Altidore.

Beyond that, his back-to-the-goal play in and near the penalty box was killer. He was credited with three key passes, which was best on Toronto and only matched on the Fire by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Patrick Doody, and had three more passes that were either completed from or into the box.

Toronto is paying Altidore the big bucks to score goals and he didn't do that Saturday, but because the team is so deep, just giving other players on the team better chances can be good enough for TFC to win big games.

The Fire had to adjust to Altidore's presence and that was Christian Dean's assignment. The recently acquired defender is another big body like Altidore. There's a reason why all of the photos of Dean from the set of USA Today wire photos are with him within reach, or actually touching, Altidore. For the most part, Dean succeeded is keeping Altidore out of scoring chances, but Altidore still won most of the physical battles.

Drew Conner vs. Justin Morrow

Whether it was by design or whether it was just what was available, Drew Conner seemed to be a focal point of the Fire's attack for much of Saturday's match. Conner played right back with Matt Polster still out injured. It was a tough assignment for him as well, going up against Toronto's left wing back Justin Morrow, who was called into the U.S. national team during the team's victorious Gold Cup run.

Morrow has scored five goals this year and can be a dangerous part of the attack coming from overlapping positions. He wasn't a major factor on Saturday although he did have a few dangerous moments in the first half.

This may have been because Conner was so aggressive in the Fire's attack. He was dribbling at his defenders on a regular basis, though not always successfully. Conner was credited with nine crosses, three of which were completed.

The Fire's reliance on crosses continued with 26 attempted in the match to Toronto's 12. Consider those numbers with the fact that Toronto outshot the Fire 18-15.

Conner's aggression may have kept Morrow more honest defensively, but it didn't result in many chances for the Fire. A near post header from Michael de Leeuw in the 24th minute off a Conner cross was a good one, but de Leeuw wasn't able to put the header on target.

It's getting repetitive, but the Fire need to find ways to attack from central positions. That will help Nemanja Nikolic in his current goal drought and give defenses multiple things to worry about as opposed to just defending crosses all the time.

Schweinsteiger's 'I'm not in Europe anymore' moment

Watch big name stars with plenty of high-level experience in MLS and inevitably there will be a play every so often that said player will be frustrated by the lack of ability and/or understanding of his teammates. MLS isn't anywhere near as good as the best European leagues so these things happen when these star players are used to playing with the best of the best. Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry were among the most amusing in these instances.

Schweinsteiger had a play like that on Saturday that had to be shared. It isn't the harshest indictment of his teammate, in this case it's Conner, but it's still somewhat amusing.

Schweinsteiger is open in the middle of the field and puts his arms up to call for the ball and show that he's open. However, there's probably not a right back in MLS who can reliably make this pass with two players in between Conner and Schweinsteiger. To his credit, Conner kept pushing forward on the dribble and the Fire got into the attacking third anyway.

Either way, soak it in: a World Cup and Champions League winner calls for a ball in MLS and gets ignored.

It doesn't stop there. In the 71st minute there's a longer version of Schweinsteiger being wide open clapping for the ball. This goes on for several seconds (eight if you count).

The Fire were constantly attacking from wide areas. Here's a world class player wanting the ball in a central area and he's wide open. He probably should get the ball here. The resulting cross at the end of this gif is headed harmlessly away.

Feel free to add your own caption of what's going through Schweinsteiger's head here.

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.