Fire

Return of the Fire? Fire hope for redemption on Star Wars Night

Return of the Fire? Fire hope for redemption on Star Wars Night

The Chicago Fire are currently licking their wounds like the rebels at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and are hoping Saturday’s game against Minnesota will be the Fire’s version of Return of the Jedi.

The Fire have lost three straight and five of six, but a look at the standings show that a home game against Minnesota may more closely resemble a bunch of hapless stormtroopers than a duel with Darth Vader. The Loons (6-14-4, 22 points) have the fewest points in the league, are winless on the road and have allowed the most goals in the league (51).

Despite facing a bottom-dwelling opponent, the Fire are going to trust their Jedi training and avoid overlooking Saturday’s game.

“MLS is built on parity so you cannot take any team lightly,” goalkeeper Matt Lampson said. “We know they’re a good team. They went to Seattle this past weekend and gave them a hell of a game. We’re going to come in ready for a fight and we just got to play the way we have been playing, the way that we know we can play and it’s going to be really important for us to get three points.”

The game will be live on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. It is Star Wars Night at Toyota Park, thus all the references in this preview.

A disturbance in the Force has hit the Fire's defense in the form of injuries lately. Those injuries have played a role in the Fire’s recent slide with three regular starting defenders going down. Brandon Vincent (quad) and Joao Meira (calf) are out yet again, but Matt Polster (left knee) was training with the rest of the team this week and is listed as questionable. Vincent is back in training, but was limited and worked out on the side.

David Accam, the Fire player most likely to make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, is also listed as questionable with a hip injury. He had the same injury entering the Toronto game last weekend and played all 90 minutes.

Minnesota’s leading goal-scorer, Christian Ramirez, has missed the last two games. He sat out training on Thursday, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and is day-to-day. Another talented Force wielder, Ethan Finlay, scored on his debut for the Loons after being traded from Columbus. His goal gave Minnesota an early lead at the Western Conference leaders, but Minnesota ultimately succumbed to the Dark Side when Clint Dempsey drew and converted a penalty kick in the 94th minute.

“We have a chance to make three points at home against Minnesota and we have to,” Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “We will not make the mistake against Minnesota. They also played in Seattle a very good game away so we will give everything to get three points at home.”

The Fire (12-8-5, 41 points) are in third place heading into this weekend’s action and the schedule presents a good opportunity for the Fire to make ground in the standings. Not only are the Fire hosting last-place Minnesota, but the two New York teams face off Friday night. New York City FC is five points ahead of the Fire for second place while the Red Bulls are three points behind the Fire. A win against the Loons means the Fire will gain ground on at least one of those teams.

Midfielder Dax McCarty’s message heading the Minnesota game was more along the lines of “Do or do not, there is no try.” He does not expect an easy game.

“It’s actually the worst time to play Minnesota,” McCarty said. “We’re not playing well and they’re going to come in here with even more confidence that they can get a result.

“There are no easy games in this league, I can promise you that. Just because they’re where they are in the standings, they have talent and they’re well-coached. They have a lot of guys that can hurt you.”

Chicago Fire vs. Minnesota United

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+

When: Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (12-8-5, 41 points), Minnesota (6-14-4, 22 points)

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.

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 New York 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.”