Fire

Things are getting tight for the Fire in the Eastern Conference

Things are getting tight for the Fire in the Eastern Conference

It may not be time to start ringing alarm bells, but the Eastern Conference race is not looking as pleasant for the Chicago Fire as it did a few weeks ago.

The Fire lost 3-1 in Columbus on Saturday. It was the Fire's third straight loss on the road.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Toronto FC erupted in the second half for a 4-1 win against Portland. TFC (13-3-8, 47 points) is now six points clear of the second-place Fire (12-6-5, 41 points). On top of that, New York City FC (12-7-4, 40 points) is just one point behind the Fire, and could move into second place with a win at LA later tonight, and the New York Red Bulls (12-9-2, 38 points) beat Orlando to move within three points of the Fire.

While Toronto has appeared to be the class of the league throughout the season and is likely to hold onto the top spot, securing the second spot at the minimum will be important for the Fire. The top two teams in each conference avoid having to play in a first-round playoff game and move straight into the conference semifinals.

Six of the Fire's final 11 regular season games will be at Toyota Park where the team has been unbeatable. The Fire are 10-0-1 at Toyota Park and the first team in the league to reach 10 wins at home.

Next up though is another road game. The Fire head to Montreal, which just beat Philadelphia for a second straight win, on Wednesday. The Impact (8-8-6, 30 points) still have some chasing to do, but are getting back in the playoff race.

After that, the Fire's home record will be put to the test with Toronto coming to town next weekend. A win at Montreal would mean a win against TFC would put the Fire back into a tie for the Supporters' Shield race. On the flipside, if the Fire don't win in Montreal, a Toronto win at Toyota Park could be a near-decisive blow for the Reds in that same race.

The Fire's playoff status isn't in doubt, but its position in the playoffs is. Despite Michael de Leeuw's early goal, his third in six games, the Fire allowed an equalizer five minutes later and couldn't regain the lead in the second half.

The Fire had a majority of the possession throughout the match and finished at 58 percent, but again struggled to create chances in the final third. The Fire had just three shots on target.

Columbus (11-12-2, 35 points) took the lead with a pretty Justin Meram outside-of-the-foot finish in the 73rd minute and the Fire collapsed after. The Crew had more chances for a third goal than the Fire did a second and eventually the third came when Ola Kamara was taken down in the box by goalkeeper Matt Lampson, making his first start in Columbus as an opposing player. Kamara converted the penalty in the 88th minute to essentially end the game.

After a number of injury scares earlier in the week, the only regular to not start was Juninho. Johan Kappelhof and Dax McCarty played the full 90 minutes after being limited in practice this week.

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.