Fire

With tougher games awaiting, Fire miss opportunity to gain ground in standings

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USA TODAY

With tougher games awaiting, Fire miss opportunity to gain ground in standings

Saturday got off to a good start for the Fire with New York City FC drawing at home, but the Fire were unable to gain ground in the race for second place in the Eastern Conference.

Not only did the Fire fail to gain ground, they lost ground. Philadelphia smashed the Fire 3-1 on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium, leaving the Fire four points behind NYCFC for second and vulnerable to the chasing pack. Atlanta can pass the Fire for third place with a win against Montreal on Sunday, and still would have a game in hand.

Things don’t get any easier for the Fire with a trip at San Jose coming up on Wednesday. The Earthquakes are in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference and have one home loss this season.

While Philadelphia has won a majority of its home matches this season, it was the easiest of the three remaining road games on the Fire’s schedule. In addition to the trip to San Jose, the Fire close the regular season at Houston, another team in the playoff hunt that has just one home loss this year.

So Saturday wasn’t such a good day for the Fire.

The game marked the first start for defender Joao Meira since Aug. 16, but midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho missed once again. This was the third straight game Schweinsteiger missed and two straight for Juninho.

Philadelphia took the lead on a Chris Pontius header in the 10th minute and added goals in the second half by Pontius and C.J. Sapong to secure a three-goal lead. Luis Solignac, who came off the bench to replace David Accam in the 60th minute, provided the Fire with a consolation goal, but there wasn’t another to make things interesting in the final minutes.

With four games left in the regular season, the Fire have a pair of tricky games coming up with that trip to San Jose before a big one at home against NYCFC.

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.”

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

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AP

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.