Fire

Statement win: Fire pour it on to knock off defending champ Seattle in front of full house

Statement win: Fire pour it on to knock off defending champ Seattle in front of full house

As far as making a statement, Saturday’s from the Chicago Fire was pretty good.

The Fire thumped the defending champion Seattle Sounders 4-1 in front of an announced sellout crowd and a national TV audience on Saturday.

The Fire (4-3-3, 15 points) scored three second-half goals to pull away from the struggling Sounders (2-4-4, 10 points). Nemanja Nikolic scored a pair of goals and David Accam and Luis Solignac each had one.

The Fire took the lead in the 25th minute following a bizarre sequence. Nemanja Nikolic was awarded a penalty kick after going down in the box even though replays showed that the tackle may have been clean. David Accam's penalty was saved by Stefan Frei, but the ref had it retaken due to both teams having players entering the box early. The second time Nikolic stepped up and scored for his seventh goal of the season.

It didn’t take long for Seattle to answer though. Clint Dempsey was given room from just outside the box and stepped into a wicked left-footed shot three minutes after Nikolic scored.

The Sounders went into halftime with 61 percent of the possession, but things flipped in the second half. Coach Veljko Paunovic moved from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3, moving Dax McCarty directly in front of the two centerbacks to close off the open areas like the one Dempsey scored from.

"From there we took over the possession," Paunovic said of his team, which had 57 percent possession in the second half. "With that change, it helped the team to have the possession, stop their progressions and when we switched to 5-3-2 formation after we scored the second goal I think we definitely took over control of the game and we had a lot of opportunities from the flanks and going from inside out and outside back in and that’s how we scored the rest of the goals. I think the key was taking the possession away from Seattle."

[RELATED: Fire's win against Seattle comes in front of 'best crowd in quite some time’]

Accam gave the Fire the lead an hour into the match, finishing off a pretty combination of dribbling and short passes between Drew Conner, Bastian Schweinsteiger and de Leeuw.

Later in the half, Matt Polster subbed on for his season debut and Jonathan Campbell also entered. The 5-3-2 formation helped the Fire lock things down defensively, as Paunovic noted, and led to goals from Luis Solignac and Nikolic's second three minutes apart.

Nikolic's eight goals tie him with Mike Magee for the most goals in the first 10 games with the Fire.

“It gives us confidence," Schweinsteiger said. "Of course Seattle is a good team. They have very good players. They won last year, but we are more focused on our game style, on our philosophy, what we have.

"We are a very good team when we understand the game, when we are moving, when everyone is giving options and when we close the gaps and make it difficult for the opponent to play so today we made a very good job, especially in the second half. Now we just have to keep going, keep working and take all the confidence what we got today for the next match and maybe play 90 minutes like today (in) the second half.”

The Fire improved to 4-0-1 at home after going winless on a three-game road trip right before this. Paunovic believes the team's improvement has been consistent despite the lack of wins on the road.

"We always say this is the best game, this is the best game so what I’m trying to say is that we can see that there is a consistency and improvement in our team," Paunovic said. "When we play at home that improvement is more evident, but also I think the stretch we had on the road also helped us to forge that mentality and that great improvement we had so far in the season, especially in the last game against LA. Finally we completed a full game with a very consistent performance in both halves, especially in the second one."

Juninho sat out the match due to an ankle sprain. Michael de Leeuw returned to the starting lineup for the first time in three matches.

The Fire play at Toyota Park again on Wednesday, against Colorado.

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.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”