Preview: Fire continue road slate against Impact


Preview: Fire continue road slate against Impact

Only three times has Fire coach Frank Yallop had the luxury of naming identical starting lineups in consecutive MLS regular season matches this year: at Columbus Crew SC (2-2 draw) on May 22 and at home to the Montreal Impact (3-0 win) on May 30; at home against FC Dallas (2-0 win) on Aug. 2 and away to the Portland Timbers on Aug. 7 (1-0 loss); and at home to the New York Red Bulls (3-2 win) on Aug. 26 and away to Orlando City SC (1-1 draw) three days later.

Following both of the first two spells - May 22-May 30 and Aug. 2-Aug. 7 - the subsequent regular season fixture would bring about at least three personnel changes. Both games - a 3-1 defeat to D.C. United at RFK Stadium on June 3 and a 3-3 draw with the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park on Aug. 16 - saw the Men in Red jump out to first-half leads, but called attention to a change in chemistry that, among other factors, led to dropped points.

When the ninth-placed Fire (7-13-6, 27 points) travel to Montreal to face the seventh-placed Impact (8-11-4, 28 points) on Saturday (7 p.m. CT; CSN), absences to David Accam (Ghana)Joevin Jones (Trinidad and Tobago) and Matt Polster (United States Under-23) will prompt Yallop to incorporate some fresh faces into the fold in hopes of gaining ground on the teams above them in the Eastern Conference.

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"It's never easy, but we train together every day, so we know each other personality-wise," said Yallop, who was seen frequently intervening Thursday's stop-start training session, stressing defensive shape to a new-look back four. "We worked on a little bit of shape this morning on certain scenarios that I think are going to happen in the game - back four and different changes we make in the lineup as we move forward in the game - just to give our guys a bit of feel with each other."

With a polished performance against a dynamic Red Bulls outfit, the Fire, if not for a dubious offside call on Gilberto and an Eric Gehrig own goal, came close to snatching their first away win of the campaign. Riding that sort of momentum without the energy provided by Polster and balance between defending and attacking supplied by Jones, not to mention Accam's destructive pace on the flanks, will be hard to match.

For Lovel Palmer, who waged a battle at right back with Gehrig during the early stages of 2015 before his move to centerback, vying for places in Yallop's team selection week in, week out has made the Jamaican stronger. Palmer, a likely candidate to replace Polster at right back against the Impact, acknowledged the challenges.   

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"Gehrig and Polster, hats off to them," Palmer said. "They came in, they've pushed me all season and I'm very happy for the competition. Personally, it's been good for me. I've been working on aspects of my game that I've never really paid attention [to] before. With these guys coming in and banging on the door, it makes me start to look at myself and be like, 'Oh, what am I doing wrong? What do I need to improve on?'

"Good competition makes for a better team. Coach Frank, when he was building his team, he had that in mind, I'm sure."     

Changes are forced, sometimes not. The Fire, largely a momentum team through 26 games, will still be seeking their first win on their travels since July 12, 2014, itching to see whether adjustments to the lineup and formation pan out. When referee Silviu Petrescu blows for the final whistle by night's end on Saturday, the final score will tell the story. 

Viewing information:

Montreal Impact vs. Chicago Fire

Kickoff time: 7 p.m. CT

Where: Stade Saputo; Montreal, Quebec.

Broadcast: CSN Chicago     

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


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


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.