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Paunovic praises Fire's young players

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Paunovic praises Fire's young players

With a preseason game completed, Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic has a bit more to say about his team.

During his weekly conference call with media on Monday, Paunovic talked about how impressed he has been with some of the team's younger players, getting Sean Johnson, Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent into camp from the national team and some early impressions from Saturday's 3-0 win against the University of South Florida.

"We are very happy so far with how the team is performing and improving and obviously we know we have to still improve our form for the next couple of weeks to prepare well for the long season," Paunovic said.

The Fire are filled with youth, with 12 players on the preseason roster who are first or second-year professionals. Veteran additions like Michael Harrington and Nick LaBrocca as well as returning veterans like Eric Gehrig and Razvan Cocis almost have dual roles on the squad to help the younger players integrate into the team.

"Our veterans are helping a lot to our youngsters, to integrate and to catch the level that they have because we believe players like Mauricio [Pineda], Collin [Fernandez], Kingsley [Bryce], [Patrick] Doody and others are the future of our team," Paunovic said. “I was surprised with the group of youngsters. This is the first time that they really are challenged to work with senior players and professional players at a professional level. I’m very, very surprised with the level and the commitment and as I said before they are proving themselves to be reliable in the future of our team.”

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One player specifically who impressed Paunovic has been Fire Academy player Mauricio Pineda. Pineda, who is 18 years old, signed his letter of intent to play collegiately for North Carolina while at the Fire's training camp in Tampa. Pineda has been training with the first team throughout the preseason and even started Saturday's match against USF. Already a youth national team prospect, Pineda is emerging as a player who could become a homegrown signing for the Fire in the near future. Paunovic said it's too early to say if Pineda could actually remain with the first team and sign at the end of the preseason, but he spoke highly of the defender.

"I would say we are very happy with what we expected that he can do on the next level, the professional level," Paunovic said. "He is proving that. He, Collin and other guys that I mentioned before, this is what gives us security that we have. Now obviously they have to work still."

A couple other players which Paunovic had an eye on against USF were Joey Calistri and Vincent Keller. Keller was the only Fire player to play the whole match, playing center back in the first half and right back in the second half. Calistri, a forward throughout his Fire Academy and Northwestern career, played right back in the first half and impressed his new coach.

“The technical staff, we had a discussion about where he can fit the best for our squad," Paunovic said of Calistri. "We believe that obviously trying him in that position in the session during the preseason, he proved that he can play there. That’s why he played there because we want to find the best position for him and obviously we have to see that in a game. That’s why we played him in that position and we were very happy with his performance.”

[MORE: Calistri looks to add depth to Fire's forward line]

Monday marks the first day of training for Johnson, Polster and Vincent. Paunovic talked about Vincent's debut performance for the U.S. national team on Friday.

“We were very happy to see him play the other day," Paunovic said. "He deserves it because I’m sure he did great at the camp so that’s how and that’s why you earn the confidence of the coach. This is how all our youngsters have to understand how to do it. What we are expecting from him is the same thing: being a humble and hard-working guy and bring the talent that he will provide us. We expect him to be a good prospect not only for us, which is obvious, but for the Olympic national team and even for the senior team.”

As for the foreign transfers who have yet to join camp, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos, Paunovic said Meira has his visa and should join the team in the next couple days. Kappelhof and Ramos are still waiting for their visas. Paunovic also clarified how the Fire discovered Ramos. The 20-year-old Brazilian didn't play much at the U-20 World Cup which Paunovic coached Serbia in, but they scouted him on video from his nine appearances with Coritiba.

“He did not play too much at the World Cup," Paunovic said. "The fact that he was a part of that great team was very important for us. When he was offered on loan to us, we started scouting him. I saw all the nine games that played for Coritiba this past season.

"What I saw and what the technical staff saw was that he is a fast player, he is good on the ball, he has that Brazilian attacking mentality and attitude so that’s what we are looking for. Obviously he is good defensively, but at the same time he attacks very well after he recovers.”

The Fire continue the preseason with a 3 p.m. CT kickoff against the Philadelphia Union on Thursday.

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

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.