Fire

Notes from the rewatch: The returns of Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: The returns of Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam

What was a big game on paper never quite felt like one on the field.

The Fire and New York City FC played to a 1-1 draw on Saturday and neither team hit fifth gear. That likely has to due with the fact that it was the third game in eight days for both teams and key players were coming back from injury on both sides.

David Villa didn't played in New York's trip to Montreal on Wednesday and David Accam and Bastian Schweinsteiger came back from injury for the Fire, but both played limited minutes.

With a combined five shots on target, neither team created a ton of chances.

"It wasn’t really back and forth action, but two good teams squaring off," NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. "It was good. I think it was a fair result."

The Fire began the match with a 30-pass sequence that lasted 105 seconds. It led to nothing, but it's worth a mention. NYCFC attempted and completed just one pass in the first three minutes.

Both teams had stretches of dominant play, but neither peppered the opposing goal much. NYCFC picked it up a notch a few minutes after the Fire took the lead and got the equalizer via Villa just before halftime. There was a short surge from the Fire a few minutes after Schweinsteiger entered, but it was New York which was putting on the pressure in the final 10 minutes. There wasn’t the urgency shown by the Fire to get a win the team really needed in the race for playoff seeding, but that also may have been due to fatigue from three games in eight days.

While the draw didn't exactly change anything in the standings, the match did give a glimpse of how Accam and Schweinsteiger are doing in their recoveries and showed the first look of how life after Michael de Leeuw could be for the Fire.

Accam's unusual stint

Accam didn't start the match even after not traveling to San Jose. His hip injury is something that has bothered him for weeks and it sounds like it will be an on and off issue for the rest of the season.

So Accam started off the bench, which allowed coach Veljko Paunovic to start the same attacking four he did in the 4-1 win in San Jose. When de Leeuw went down with an injury midway through the first half it forced Accam to enter earlier than Paunovic had planned. It's not often players who sub into a match also have to sub out, but that's what happened with Accam.

He still showed off his speed to beat or get around defenders on a few occasions, even in the second half, but Accam didn't take any shots. He completed just seven of 14 passes in his 56 minutes on the field.

After the game, Paunovic said Accam played more than they had planned for him to.

"We wanted to give some time to recover and rest and get ready for the coming games and the playoff push," Paunovic said.

It's not clear if that means Accam will stay on a limited workload heading into the playoffs or if he will be 100 percent after the week off the team has, but his injury will be something to watch the rest of the season.

Schweinsteiger's rust

Schweinsteiger had missed the previous four matches and played 19 minutes on Saturday. He completed four of six passes and lacked his typical sharpness on the ball, which isn't a surprise.

Afterwards, he said he wasn't yet 100 percent. Like Accam, the week off should be important for the German.

He played in a more advanced role in his short time on the field, filling the spot Michael de Leeuw typically plays. Perhaps that will be an option going forward with de Leeuw hurt.

Life without de Leeuw

Speaking of de Leeuw, Saturday's match showed a few possibilities for how the Fire will play without him. No one on the Fire does what de Leeuw does. He has played underneath Nemanja Nikolic and leads the team with eight assists.

His runs, positioning and knack for creating chances for his teammates out of nowhere will be tough to replace, especially for a team which has had trouble creating chances in the past couple months. Beyond his ability, there aren't others on the team who can play that withdrawn striker/attacking midfield role as comfortably as de Leeuw did.

When Accam replaced him in the 30th minute, Paunovic had him play at striker for a few minutes to get loose without strenuous defensive responsibilities. After that, Accam and Luis Solignac both had stints on the left wing with Arturo Alvarez staying on the right wing.

Once Schweinsteiger entered he played de Leeuw's spot in an effort to limit his defensive responsibilities post-injury and allow him to influence the attack more. Schweinsteiger flanked by some combination of Accam, Solignac and Alvarez could still be dangerous. The problem then is how the Fire fill the other deep midfield role next to Dax McCarty.

Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic have both filled in while Juninho remains out with a knee injury. If Juninho is ready to start in two weeks, Schweinsteiger taking de Leeuw's spot makes sense. If not, that may force a formational shift from the Fire with de Leeuw out.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

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AP

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.