Fire

Veljko Paunovic calls U.S. Open Cup the Fire's priority ahead of quarterfinal

Veljko Paunovic calls U.S. Open Cup the Fire's priority ahead of quarterfinal

As the Chicago Fire continue to sit at the bottom of the Major League Soccer standings, the team’s run in the U.S. Open Cup takes more and more focus.

The Fire take on the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Toyota Park in a quarterfinal in the competition on Wednesday. Coach Veljko Paunovic talked about how important the U.S. Open Cup has become.

“This is our must-win game,” Paunovic said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “We are truly motivated and very optimistic about this competition. It becomes our priority and this is how we are working.”

That statement certainly lines up with the lineup Paunovic played in the 3-1 loss at FC Dallas on Saturday. David Accam, Jonathan Campbell and Sean Johnson didn’t even travel for the game and Matt Polster was subbed off at halftime.

[MORE: Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez hints at potential summer moves]

The Fire are in the middle of a stretch that includes five matches in 15 days. The squad rotation was decided well in advance of the trip to Dallas.

“We shared the plan with all the players before this stretch of the game started, before even the game against Sporting Kansas City (on July 13),” Paunovic said. “Everyone knows how much they’re going to participate and what the plan is from the fitness standpoint. I think we have to manage the load. July is a very hard month for us.”

That includes the goalkeeper switch with Matt Lampson playing between the posts in an MLS match for the first time since the May 14 loss at New England. Paunovic said he told Johnson and Lampson of the plan before the Sporting KC match that Johnson started.

“We want Matt Lampson to play also in the Open Cup game on Wednesday so we believe that for him it was very important for him to have a game before that,” Paunovic said.

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With the U.S. Open Cup seemingly taking priority, at least ahead of the match at Dallas, does this mean Paunovic is giving up hope on making the playoffs? The Fire have 17 points with 16 matches remaining. Last season, the first year that six teams made the playoffs from each conference, the cut off to make the playoffs in the East was 49 points. Even if that drops to 45 points considering the East appears even weaker this season, that would require the Fire to average 1.75 points per match the rest of the way. That would be the third best record in MLS this season.

In other words, the Fire would have to go from the worst team in the league to one of the best starting now just to be on the bubble to make the playoffs. Even Paunovic admitted it would take something special.

“Listen we never give up,” Paunovic said. “We will play all our games to win and that’s what we are doing. We are trying our best of course… We don’t give up on playoffs this year. I actually believe in miracles. I’ve seen them happen in soccer many times to me and even against me.”

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.