Fire

With push for playoff seeding in full force, Fire head to Philadelphia with key absences

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With push for playoff seeding in full force, Fire head to Philadelphia with key absences

There aren’t many easy games left on the Fire’s schedule, but Saturday’s game in Philadelphia appears to be one of the more winnable games remaining even if it is on the road.

The Union have a respectable 7-4-3 home record, but are out of the playoff race and are winless in six straight. The Fire hope to pick up a second straight road win, keep pace with New York City FC and stay ahead of red-hot Atlanta in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The game will be televised on CSN+ (channel finder) with coverage beginning at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

While on paper the game is winnable, the Fire will once again be significantly shorthanded in midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho are both out with injuries. Schweinsteiger will miss his third straight game while Juninho will be out for two in a row. The Fire beat D.C. United 3-0 with Dax McCarty pairing with Drew Conner in central midfield last weekend.

With Joao Meira returning from injury as a sub in that win against D.C., coach Veljko Paunovic could run a similar lineup to the one from last week or elect to go with three centerbacks in an altered formation. Either way, the Fire remain without key pieces during a time of year when the team wants to be hitting its peak with the playoffs just over a month away.

“You want to get your top 11 group on the field together so they can get games, but if that’s not the case then you can also get guys experience and you can get younger guys in games that mean something and that matter because there’s no substitute for experience,” McCarty said. “You can’t replicate that in training. Guys like Drew Conner, guys like Djordje (Mihailovic). Those guys that are going to be very important for us in our playoff push and our depth heading into the playoffs.

“That’s the reason why depth is so important in MLS because while you would love to be able to count on your first 11 every single time you step on the field, (but) that’s not the case. I think we’ve seen that throughout the whole season. I don’t think we’ve had our first 11 group on the field together for months so you want depth and obviously it’s important to get guys healthy."

The extent of Schweinsteiger’s injuries hasn’t been clear. He had a bruise on his calf from a collision during the match in Montreal on Sept. 2, but also has a thigh injury. Schweinsteiger appeared to be nearing a return last week when he was running and working out in training separate from the group, but he was not at training on Tuesday or Wednesday this week, which implied a setback.

When asked about Schweinsteiger’s status, Paunovic has remained coy.

“Basti is very important for the team,” Paunovic said. “We want him as soon as possible. We will provide all the help that we can. As soon as we can have him back it’s going to be very important for the team. Also during that time we have guys who are prepared and ready and want to step in.”

Everyone knows he is a key absence, but the team has a solid 2-1-3 record without him this year.

“It doesn’t take a genius to see the positive attributes that he brings to the team,” McCarty said of Schweinsteiger. “He’s been one of our best players and obviously he’s a focal point for the way that we do things, not only defensively, but attacking as well. He’s a guy who teams have to account for whenever he’s on the ball. His vision, his ability to make plays within the game, knowing what the game needs and what time, you can’t substitute that. It makes my job easier, it makes our strikers’ jobs easier, so it’s a big loss not having him on the field.”

Chicago Fire at Philadelphia Union

Where: Talen Energy Stadium (Chester, Penn.)

TV: CSN + (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (14-9-6, 48 points), Union (8-12-9, 33 points)

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.