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)

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

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USA TODAY

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

The MLS offseason doesn't take long to get in gear.

The Fire traded Arturo Alvarez earlier on Sunday, the same day which the list of protected players was to be announced ahead of Tuesday's expansion draft for Los Angeles FC.

LAFC will take five players in the expansion draft, which is set for 1 p.m. on Tuesday. A team can only lose one player. Each team can protect 11 players and homegrown players aren't eligible for selection. For the Fire that means Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic can't be taken.

The Fire protected David Accam, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho, Matt Polster, Richard Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luis Solignac and Brandon Vincent.

While Sanchez and Schweinsteiger are out of contract, the Fire have said they are negotiating with both players. Protecting Juninho is a bit of a surprise because it implies that the Fire have some intention of keeping him for next year, or at least keeping his rights to be traded.

The Fire left David Arshakyan, Jorge Bava, Brandt Bronico, Stefan Cleveland, Jorge Corrales, Michael de Leeuw, Christian Dean, Daniel Johnson and Matt Lampson unprotected. De Leeuw would be a worthwhile pickup for LA if it thinks he is worth it after his ACL tear suffered late in the season.

With only five players being selected it's fairly likely no Fire players are taken by LAFC, but it's arguable that de Leeuw will end up being one of the best five players available. The 31-year-old tied for the team lead with eight assists and scored three goals.

Fire open offseason by sending Arturo Alvarez home

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USA TODAY

Fire open offseason by sending Arturo Alvarez home

And they're off.

MLS Cup finished just last night with Toronto completing arguably the best season in league history, but the offseason doesn't wait long to get going. The Fire took advantage of Sunday's short trade window before Los Angeles FC's expansion draft takes place on Tuesday by trading Arturo Alvarez to the Houston Dynamo.

Alvarez, a Houston native, gets to go home and could finish his career with the Dynamo. The Fire received a second-round pick in the 2019 draft.

Alvarez, 32, made 55 regular season MLS appearances with the Fire in two years. He had five goals and nine assists in 2016, leading the team in assists. This past season he saw his minutes get nearly cut in half although he did regain a regular spot in the team towards the end of the season and finished with three goals and two assists.

“Arturo had perhaps his two best years wearing our red and we appreciate all that he gave to our club,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodríguez said in the team's statement. “We saw this as a chance to allow him to return home while opening up his minutes for some other players.”

The question is which players Rodriguez is referring to. Alvarez played primarily at right midfield, frequently cutting inside with his dangerous left foot. Two players come to mind as possible fill-ins already on the roster: Daniel Johnson and Brandt Bronico.

Johnson was the Fire's first-round pick in the 2017 draft and showed flashes of ability, but dealt with injuries through much of the season and made eight substitute appearances totaling 125 minutes. He is a wide player, but was the opposite of Alvarez, typically playing on the left and cutting in on his right foot.

Bronico was the 2017 third-round pick and made only four sub appearances adding up to 53 minutes played. With such limited action it was difficult to gauge whether he could be a wide midfielder or should be played centrally. Either way, with Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic out for the first few months of 2018 with ACL tears, both Johnson and Bronico will have opportunities the way the roster is currently constructed.

More news is due later today with the expansion draft set for Tuesday. The Fire will announce the 11 players they are protecting. Homegrown players (Drew Conner and Mihailovic) won't need to be protected. The Fire have 17 others players that will be eligible for the expansion draft.