Fire

With playoff spot nearly secure, 'now it’s about how good' Fire can be

accam-919.jpg
USA TODAY

With playoff spot nearly secure, 'now it’s about how good' Fire can be

Things have been on the upswing for the Fire for the past couple weeks, but the players recognize the sharpness of the team’s unbeaten run earlier in the season still eludes them.

The 3-0 win against D.C. United on Saturday wasn’t all-out domination, but was the only comfortable win in the past seven games. With five games remaining in the regular season, and a playoff spot virtually locked up, the Fire is hoping to reach its heights from earlier in the year.

“We can start mentally getting ready to treat I think these next five games like they are playoff games, mentally getting ready for it,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We haven’t clinched anything yet so I don’t think we can take any of that for granted, but obviously with a couple good results in a row now, we’re feeling pretty comfortable about making the playoffs. Now it’s about positioning. We want to get a first-round bye so, like I said, these last five games for us, from my perspective, are playoff games.”

New York City FC is three points ahead of the Fire for second place in the Eastern Conference. The two teams play at Toyota Park on Sept. 30.

They already met in Yankee Stadium on July 22. That game was the first in a stretch of seven games in which the Fire lost six. NYCFC suffered an early red card and still managed to beat the Fire. The Fire’s struggles to create and convert quality chances was evident in that game and continued for many of the next several games.

The three-goal outburst against D.C. was a sign that the Fire may be getting the attack back in gear. David Accam, whose six chances created were most in MLS this past weekend, said the attack is not quite back to its peak.

“At the moment we are creating more chances,” Accam said. “We’re not sharp in front of goal. Before we were. We were creating, we were sharp, but now we are only creating. We’re not sharp. We are still working in training at trying to be sharper in front of goal in games.”

Defensively, the Fire has allowed one goal in the past three matches. In the previous eight matches, the team allowed 19 goals. As Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster returned from injury, and Joao Meira is right behind after coming off the bench against D.C., the Fire’s defensive record seems to have improved.

That doesn’t mean the team has a clean bill of health. Both Bastian Schweinsteiger (calf) and Juninho (knee) were not at training on Tuesday. Luis Solignac (thigh) and Daniel Johnson (knee) were both limited to running. Even without Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Fire produced in a convincing win against D.C.

McCarty wasn’t worried the team would turn things around, but he has noticed more confidence in the team after getting seven points from the last three games.

“Certainly there’s more confidence in the group,” McCarty said. “We know we’re a good team. We know we can win games. Now it’s about how good can we be? We’re going to have to play our best if we’re going to be successful because I think we’ve shown that if we drop our level, even just a little bit, we’re just not good enough to win games in this league. We have to be very good every time we step on the field because other teams have certain aspects where maybe they’re stronger than us in, but if we can be at our best I like our chances against anyone.”

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

10-22_dynamo_matchup_mls_fire_blank.jpg

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

rodriguez-1020.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.