Fire

Veljko Paunovic's coaching tendencies starting to emerge

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Veljko Paunovic's coaching tendencies starting to emerge

Every coach instills an identity into his or her team.

Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls were known for high effort and defense. Phil Jackson was known for the triangle offense. Ozzie Guillen’s White Sox took on his loose demeanor. U.S. Soccer under Jurgen Klinsmann is known for, well, maybe that’s not the best example.

The question is what is the Fire’s identity under Veljko Paunovic? What does a Veljko Paunovic coached team look like? What is unique about it?

It’s only been four matches, but Paunovic is starting to show what he is as a coach with the Fire.

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Building out of the back

This is something Paunovic talked about repeatedly when he was hired and throughout the preseason. He wanted his team to build out of the back, and it proved costly when the team executed that strategy in the windy season opener.

However, the Fire are starting to figure out how to build out of the back more effectively. The second, and maybe more important, part is to link that build up play into scoring chances and goals. Still, the team isn’t relying on as many long balls from defenders as it used to.

Formation changes

Paunovic’s willingness to change formations between matches and within matches has stood out early on. Through most of the preseason the Fire stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation which Paunovic said is the team’s base formation. After starting with that setup for just one half in the first match of the season, Paunovic has gone away from it regularly.

From the second half of the New York City FC match on March 6, when Jonathan Campbell subbed on, through the Columbus match two weeks later, the Fire shifted to a three center back formation. The Fire defended with five for the second half against NYCFC and for full matches in Orlando and against Columbus. Paunovic said after the Columbus match the formation was a 3-5-2 and the wing backs needed to play higher up the field to help with possession play.

In the 1-0 win against Philadelphia most recently, Paunovic went back to a four-man back line in a formation he called a 4-2-3-1. That looked more like a 4-4-1-1 at times. Regardless of the specifics of the formations, Paunovic has shown a willingness to switch tactics frequently.

“I think we go into a match thinking what’s the best way we’re going to be able to defend and also attack,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “I think it varies, but we’re getting there. I think it’s good for a team to adapt to different formations.”

[MORE:Second NYCFC match gives Fire chance to display improvement]

Defense first

Perhaps this is more related to the personnel Paunovic has available, but the Fire appear to be a team built around defense first.

“You have to build your team with a good defense and then improve from that point,” Paunovic said after the 0-0 draw with Columbus on March 19.

Since the disastrous defensive performance in the first match of the season, giving up three first half goals in a 4-3 loss, the Fire have allowed just one goal in three matches. Part of that could be put on the emergence of the rookie Campbell, who didn’t play in the first half of the opener, but it also appears that Paunovic wants a strong defense to build around before addressing the attack.

“I think if you watch the games you can tell we’re pretty structured defensively,” midfielder Michael Stephens said. “Everybody knows where they’re supposed to be, their roles, and then we build from there. So we build from the back. We’ve got two shutouts in a row so I think if we play strong defensively and let our offense build off of that and continue to improve our offense then we’re going to be in good shape.”

What else?

One more thing that can be learned from Sunday’s upcoming match at NYCFC will be how Paunovic adjusts to an opponent he has faced before, especially one the Fire faced so recently. Will Paunovic come out the same way in Yankee Stadium as he did in the home opener with only minor adjustments or will he change things completely to give the opponent a different look?

Paunovic’s tenure with the Fire is just starting so there will be plenty new things to learn about his tendencies, but it’s clear that some of them are already showing.

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.