Fire

Veljko Paunovic after Fire's continued slide: 'It's the mental thing'

Veljko Paunovic after Fire's continued slide: 'It's the mental thing'

Entering Saturday, the Chicago Fire’s skid of five losses in six games featured disappointing results and performances, but nothing shocking or embarrassing.

That may have changed after the 2-1 loss to Minnesota at Toyota Park. The Fire entered with a 10-1-1 home record and the Loons came in winless on the road and tied for the fewest points in the league.

If nothing else, both the performance and the result proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the Fire are not playing as well as they were a couple months ago. Coach Veljko Paunovic doesn’t think it’s physical issues, but rather a drop in confidence and mentality within the team.

“I think it’s the mental thing,” Paunovic said. “We are now in a situation where we are actually running a lot, we are doing a lot, but we are not sharp, we are not efficient. Then it always goes back to the confidence. It always goes back to the mentality. When it’s difficult, you see how everyone behaves against adversity.”

The immediate reaction was a Fire locker room that was more upset than after any home game this season or last. Even last week’s home loss to Toronto there were positives the team could draw from the performance.

After losing to an expansion team that has struggled this season, walking into the locker room was more of a ‘if looks could kill’ situation.

“Right now, I think I’m happy to see that our team is reacting,” Paunovic said. “I’m sure with that mentality and with that mindset at one point we will get the good result that will bring the confidence back. We will have to stick together like I said and keep working until that moment comes.”

Midfielder Dax McCarty has gone on long-winded explanations about what the team needs to improve, and sometimes that came after wins. Even McCarty was short on words with the frustration from another loss fresh in his mind.

“Nobody likes losing so everyone is frustrated, but we’re going to try to stay positive and get out of this,” McCarty said.

McCarty agreed with Paunovic’s assessment that it’s the mental side that is hurting the team right now.

“Yeah, sure, I agree with that a little bit,” McCarty said. “You got to have confidence to score goals and we can’t score goals right now so that’s the frustration.

“If you give the other team breakaways and tap-ins, you’re going to concede goals. On the other end if it takes you 25 shots to score one goal, that’s not a recipe for winning many games.”

[RELATED: After another loss, Fire's sense of urgency 'needs to be ramped up to another level’]

The two issues McCarty pointed to, mistakes and turnovers leading to goals and failing to convert opportunities, have plagued the team in recent weeks. Defensively, none of the Fire’s three injured starters, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster and Joao Meira dressed for the game. On top of that, one of the replacements, Christian Dean, was subbed out at halftime with a left foot injury and was on crutches after the game. Dean has missed time each of the past two years with injuries to that foot.

Nemanja Nikolic’s goal drought extended to eight games. David Accam scored to get the Fire back within a goal after the team trailed 2-0 at halftime and Accam is now two goals behind Nikolic with 14 on the season.

“It doesn’t go so easy like before,” defender Johan Kappelhof said. “Before the first chance was a goal and now we have to work hard for the chances and we don’t finish them and we give too easy (of) goals away. Now it’s a tough time, but we have to regroup and give everything we have to repair.”

Fire preparing for playoffs to be 'incredibly different'

Fire preparing for playoffs to be 'incredibly different'

The two teams heading into Wednesday’s MLS playoff opener have very different recent histories.

The New York Red Bulls are entering into an eighth straight postseason while the Fire have made it just one other year, 2012, during the Red Bulls’ run. So while the Red Bulls have plenty of playoff experience, the Fire have just a few players on the roster who have played in the playoffs, Arturo Alvarez, Michael Harrington, Juninho and former Red Bull Dax McCarty.

McCarty is in the spotlight a bit more than normal because of the subplot of facing his former team in the playoffs after his drama-filled exit in January. He also gets to tell his team about just how different the playoffs are from the regular season.

“It’s incredibly different, in every sense,” McCarty said on Monday. “I can’t stress that enough. The little details, they become even finer. The margin between winning and losing is so thin that the team that is sharper on the day, the team that is more physical on the day, the team that works harder on the day, that’s usually the team that gives themselves the best chance to win. Now, you have to obviously add in quality to go along with that, but playoff games are not like regular season games. They’re just not.”

McCarty also shared this message, along with some of the other MLS playoff veterans, with the team on Monday. For someone like David Accam, who endured back-to-back last place finishes in his first two years with the Fire, this is a good kind of different.

“We had a meeting, everyone shared their experience and how the playoffs is and how they felt during the playoffs,” Accam said. “I’ve played in major competitions before and I know the feeling. It’s a knockout game and you want to win. A lot of people are watching and you want to show that you are good enough to be playing in this type of game so everyone is excited.”

McCarty played in a number of big games with the Red Bulls, but the club hasn’t made MLS Cup since 2008. For all of their regular season success, which includes Supporters' Shields in 2013 and 2015, the Red Bulls have developed a reputation of struggling in the playoffs.

“I know first-hand that that team has been through some battles and they’ve had a lot of heartbreak and they’ve had guys that have been in really big games before,” McCarty said. “I think we have, too, but to a lesser extent.

"I think experience is important because you know what to expect... In a sense that helps settle the nerves a little bit.”

The experience gap as far as MLS playoffs go is big, but others on the Fire have big match experience. Johan Kappelhof participated in the Dutch Eredivisie’s playoffs to qualify for the Europa League and of course Bastian Schweinsteiger has won the Champions League and the World Cup.

As for the German, he returned to training on Monday. The team arrived from Houston on Sunday night and would normally have a regen day or an off day after a match, but the short turnaround didn’t allow for that. Schweinsteiger sat out the last two games due to a calf injury that has limited him to one 19-minute appearance in the past seven matches, but should be back Wednesday.

“I feel OK," Schweinsteiger said. "I mean obviously I didn’t play so many minutes in the past month, but I feel OK. Let’s see.”

Will he start?

"It's a secret," he said with a laugh.

The concept of playoffs to Schweinsteiger is literally a bit foreign. He quipped about how different the seasons are compared to what he’s used to.

“We came third in the whole country,” Schweinsteiger said. “I don’t know if you were expecting that before the season. I think it’s good, but at the end of the day in America it depends on the playoffs. In the Bundesliga you would be in the Champions League, but here it’s more or less, yeah, nothing.

“It’s going to be hopefully a great evening for us.”

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.