Fire

Preview: Dax McCarty faces old team with Fire on CSN

Preview: Dax McCarty faces old team with Fire on CSN

An obvious storyline for Saturday's Chicago Fire match at the New York Red Bulls is the return of former Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty to his previous home, but does his familiarity with the opposition give the Fire a boost?

McCarty and the Fire take on the Red Bulls on Saturday at Red Bull Arena. CSN has the live coverage, beginning at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

In a league where most teams don't have a distinct or discernible style the Red Bulls have been identifiable as a team that typically wins the possession battle and punishes mistakes with a high-press since former Fire player Jesse Marsch took over as coach in 2015.

"I was a part of that system for the last two years and obviously I guess you can describe it as when Jesse came in and started coaching the system changed and became very distinct," McCarty said.

McCarty played with the Red Bulls for five and a half seasons and was the captain under Marsch. His familiarity with the players and the system could help the Fire, although he insisted it's nothing most teams can't see on film anyway.

"Obviously I know a couple little inside details that they try to do that most teams can see on video," McCarty said. "There's not going to be any real secrets. I think that they're very good at what they do and they're very good at the way that they play and not many teams are capable of playing with them. We're going to have to do a few things tactically to make sure that we're ready and prepared for everything that they throw at you because they have a very good style of play that's led them to be one of the best teams in the league over the past couple years.

"I'll be able to tell the guys a little bit about each guy that they're playing against, maybe one-on-one battles."

[RELATED: Dax McCarty ready to 'soak in the moment' in return to Red Bull Arena]

The Fire (3-2-2, 11 points) have struggled on the road so far this season with two losses, both by multiple goals, and a draw. The Red Bulls (4-3-1, 13 points) are 3-0-1 at home and had the most home wins in the league (13) last season. Last season, the Fire lost 1-0 at Red Bull Arena and played to a 2-2 draw against the Red Bulls at Toyota Park.

Coach Veljko Paunovic said McCarty's knowledge of the opponent will supplement what he and the staff learned from last year's matches.

"Of course it helps, but we also played against the Red Bulls so many times and saw them play against other teams," Paunovic said. "It's a very good and very well known opponent that we have in front. We believe we know their strengths. It's always helpful that you can have a player who knows their system like Dax and played in that system and performed very well."

The Fire don't yet have a clear style under Paunovic, especially with so many new key figures in this year's team. The three-man central midfield of Bastian Schweinsteiger, McCarty and Juninho is still figuring things out and even Schweinsteiger recently said he is playing at 70 percent fitness.

Paunovic does believe he has seen the team progress in that area though.

"I think we can notice that the team is more comfortable with the ball, more confident and creates more opportunities," he said. "We still have to do a better job converting these opportunities, especially on the road. I think on the road we have to manage better the games, especially to not concede early goals."

The Fire have allowed a goal in the first half hour of all three road games this season. McCarty is hoping to see the Fire’s first road win come at his former home stadium.

"We haven't been very good on the road this year," McCarty said. "There's nothing like going into a really good team's home and getting your first win of the year. That's kind of the way I'm trying to look at it and the way that I'm trying to talk to the guys about it. If we're going to be successful this year we can't just be good at home. We have to win on the road, too. What a better environment, what a better game to get that first win and try to be good and make sure that we leave Red Bull Arena with something."

Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls

Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.

TV: CSN

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (3-2-2, 11 points), Red Bulls (4-3-1, 13 points)

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”