Fire

Is there actually reason for optimism with the Fire?

Is there actually reason for optimism with the Fire?

After back-to-back wins suddenly the doom and gloom surrounding the Chicago Fire has been lifted, at least for now.

The Fire played well in a 1-0 win against San Jose. That win came three days after beating Columbus in the U.S. Open Cup.

Granted, Columbus was short a couple key players due to injury and sat a couple more to rest them. Meanwhile, San Jose is so short on centerbacks that when coach Dominic Kinnear was asked about the team's injury problems, Kinnear jokingly asked the reporter if he could play centerback.

Still though, there was something about the Fire's play that showed genuine improvement from the early season games when the team struggled to put shots on goal, let alone get goals or wins. John Goossens nutmegged two players in the first half and scored the game-winning goal. Brazilian right back Rodrigo Ramos lived up to what Brazilian outside backs are known for, a flair on the ball and a desire to go forward at every opportunity.

“I think that’s the way you play when you’re having fun," Goossens said. "You’re doing your job and in the meantime you’re having fun. Rodrigo is a great player who can run 90 minutes and that makes it easier for me. When he’s coming, the defender has to make a decision what to do. Will he stay with me or go with Rodrigo? I think we have a great combination and we have to keep working on that to make it even better, to make it even more difficult for the opposing defenders.”

[RELATED: John Goossens scores first MLS goal in Fire win]

Ramos looked like he is playing with more confidence than he did earlier in the season. The 21-year-old lifted a ball over a defender's head to get around him and on another occasion flicked a ball with his back foot to draw a yellow card from Shaun Francis. In addition he delivered a number of crosses to give the Fire scoring chances.

“That’s one of my strengths, to be strong up top so I’m trying to use that to the team’s advantage," Ramos said through a translator. "The team is lacking assists so I’m hoping to give a lot of assists.”

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The way the season had gone before this week and how the past several years have gone, it's hard to believe multiple good things can line up for the Fire at once. Fire fans will be forgiven for cringing at the thought of optimism because they've been burned so much.

However, on face value, things are legitimately headed in a positive direction, which admittedly isn't tough for a team in last place. David Accam and Goossens are back from injury and producing. Arturo Alvarez and Matt Polster, both regulars in midfield when healthy, should be back from injury soon. Michael de Leeuw is set for his debut in the team's next match. As opposed to having a rail thin roster, which has struggled to fill out its bench due to injuries, coach Veljko Paunovic may now have some tough lineup selection decisions to make.

“We are getting there," Paunovic said. "I still believe there is a long way to go."

Of course, the standings still don't look good for the Fire. At 3-7-5, the Fire are tied for last in the league with Houston, and are six points out of the last playoff spot in the weaker Eastern Conference. This is one of the reasons why Paunovic was quick to emphasize the importance to keep the streak going in Toronto on July 9. That's a Toronto team which will be without injured Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Will Johnson and Clint Irwin.

"Next game we need another win and that’s our message now," Paunovic said. "We just started. We have to take advantage of this momentum, this great period we created in the last two games."

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.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.