Fire

Preview: Fire hope to get first road win against struggling LA on CSN

Preview: Fire hope to get first road win against struggling LA on CSN

So far the Chicago Fire are having the same troubles on the road this season.

The Fire are 0-3-1 on the road in 2017 and have lost the last three away from Toyota Park. There will be another chance to snap that streak Saturday on CSN when the Fire travel to take on the LA Galaxy. Coverage begins at 9 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

This might be the best chance yet for the Fire (3-3-2, 11 points) to pick up a win on the road. The Galaxy (2-5-1, 7 points) are tied for the most losses in the league and have more home losses (3) than any other team.

Perennially, the Galaxy have been one of the premier teams in Major League Soccer, but shed some big players and coach Bruce Arena, now coaching the U.S. national team, in the offseason. Gone are designated players Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, regular starter on defense A.J. DeLaGarza and veteran depth Mike Magee, Alan Gordon, Jeff Larentowicz and Leonardo.

In have been American national teamer Jermaine Jones and European additions Romain Alessandrini and Joao Pedro. Jones and Pedro have been part of a midfield that hasn’t quite clicked yet while Alessandrini has been a bright spot with four goals and two assists.

“They have good quality, (but) they are struggling at this moment and we can take advantage of that,” Fire defender Johan Kappelhof said. “They didn’t win home games the last couple of games.

“I think we have a good chance, but we have to be aware of their quality up front.”

In addition to Alessandrini, the Galaxy feature Mexican star Giovani Dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes, another U.S. national teamer, in the attack. Zardes has yet to score in four games back from a knee injury.

Dos Santos is off to a slow start with one goal in seven starts. Last season the Mexican had 14 goals and 12 assists.

“He’s got quality, he’s got pace, he’s got a good shot,” Kappelhof said of Dos Santos. “We have to avoid his shots and have each other’s back at the back because of his pace and don’t give him the confidence to come in the game.”

The Galaxy have failed to score in the past two matches, both which came at home. The last of those was a scoreless draw against winless Philadelphia.

This is the last home game for LA before a four-game road trip, which Fire coach Veljko Paunovic thinks will make LA more desperate for a win against the Fire.

“I think it’s going to be very tough,” Paunovic said. “Their mindset is going to be to win this game no matter what, which propels the different energy and motivation on the team which can work both ways. If that converts to the pressure for them, that’s something that we should take advantage of.”

The Galaxy are struggling in general and the Fire have struggled on the road. Kappelhof thinks the Fire showed improvement in the 2-1 loss at the New York Red Bulls, which was a much more competitive game than the 3-1 loss at Toronto the previous week.

“I think we improved from the Toronto game,” Kappelhof said. “We did better. I think we deserved more points. We created some chances and we have to continue like this in away games.”

The game also marks the return to LA for Fire midfielder Juninho. Juninho was a part of the Galaxy's run of three MLS Cup titles in four years (2011, 2012, 2014) and played six seasons with the Galaxy.

The Fire enter the match with a relatively clean bill of health while the Galaxy will be without defender Robbie Rogers (left ankle), midfielder Sebastian Lletget (foot) and goalkeeper Clement Diop (hip).

Chicago Fire at LA Galaxy

Where: StubHub Center, Carson, Calif.

TV: CSN

When: Coverage begins at 9 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (3-3-2, 11 points), Galaxy (2-5-1, 7 points)

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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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

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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.