Fire

What Saturday's win against Vancouver showed about the Fire

What Saturday's win against Vancouver showed about the Fire

The long faces from a few days before were gone. The Chicago Fire got back to business Saturday and showed they are capable of recovering from a setback.

Three days before Saturday’s match against Vancouver, the Fire took a loss for the first time in nearly two months and went all the way to penalty kicks while playing on turf.

Playing on short rest without two regular starters (David Accam and Dax McCarty) and coming off a long game on turf, the Fire picked up another home win and prevented a downward spiral.

It is fitting that the same day that the Fire showed this resilience in the form of a 4-0 win the team moved into the Supporters’ Shield lead after Toronto lost at Dallas.

“I think we shifted very well from the loss that we had,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “For us, it was very important to see it, that it’s possible to recover after 120 minutes and in just a couple of days be ready to perform like we performed today. Fantastic performance, fantastic mood. The mentality was great. That’s how the great teams play, but we still have to work a lot to be a great team.”

Last year, Paunovic would talk about how he believed better things were to come. Now he is trying to keep his team grounded. The Fire haven’t won anything yet this season, although a playoff berth seems nearly certain.

At the start of the season, most Fire fans would have been relatively satisfied with just making the playoffs to break the five-year drought. Hopes and expectations are higher now.

“I’m going to be the party breaker now and I want to stop the euphoria because I think it’s important to know that we still haven’t done anything,” Paunovic said. “It’s great to hear that our stats are improving... but we have to know that this is still half of the season, a long way to go.”

Throughout an MLS schedule there are plenty of games that can be explained with an asterisk of external factors altering a result. That could be a key player out of the lineup for injury, suspension or international duty. It could be short rest with cross-country travel. The Fire had all of that going against them on Saturday and beat a respectable Vancouver team by four goals and led by three goals inside 25 minutes.

“The main focus (Saturday) was just to make sure that we didn’t have any excuses in terms of playing a game Wednesday and going 120 minutes,” said midfielder Arturo Alvarez, who scored the third goal of the match. “It’s part of the profession. We got to make sure that we prepare ourselves for this game.”

The Fire now enter into what could be the toughest stretch of games on the entire schedule. Next is another midweek game at Portland with McCarty still with the national team and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s availability in question after he left Saturday’s game in the first half with an injury. Accam could return from playing with Ghana, but he sat out the last two games the Fire played on turf.

After that, the Fire will go on break while the Gold Cup begins and return with back-to-back road games at New York City FC, which has the third-best record in MLS, and Sporting Kansas City, which leads the Western Conference. Counting Portland, those three teams have a combined two losses in 27 home games this season.

Those games will be tough, but even if the Fire struggle in the rest of July, the team showed against Vancouver that it can respond well to adversity.

“That’s big, the reaction,” forward Michael de Leeuw said. “Because you know in the back of your head you know you played 120 minutes. You lost on penalties, that’s also mentally (tough). If you see how quick we scored the goals and we ended their chance to win because we were so dominant on the field. We were winning duels, creating a lot of chances. I think they also thought like OK, they played Wednesday 120 minutes and right away we killed them. That was a good feeling for us.”

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

de-leeuw-1109.jpg
USA TODAY

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

Due to an early playoff exit, the players of the 2017 Chicago Fire have begun to disperse around the country to see family and friends back home during the offseason.

It’s not hard to make an argument that injuries played a significant part in the team’s playoff defeat. Michael de Leeuw went down on Sept. 30 with a torn ACL, Bastian Schweinsteiger played only 19 minutes in the last seven games of the season and Juninho wasn’t quite back to 100 percent when the playoffs rolled around. De Leeuw’s absence especially seemed to change the way the team played.

“Michael is loved by everyone in the locker room,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That’s off the field, but on the field he also put his best always. His quality, his mentality, character, leadership. He’s a winner, he wanted to win. That piece maybe we missed.”

More than five weeks after suffering the knee injury against New York City FC on Sept. 30, de Leeuw had his surgery on Thursday morning. Teenager Djordje Mihailovic suffered an ACL tear in the playoff loss nearly a full month after de Leeuw’s, but still had his surgery a week before the Dutchman.

“It was also my MCL,” de Leeuw said the day before his surgery. “It was a little bit sprained so that’s why they had to wait a little bit longer. Djordje only had his ACL, that’s why he already got surgery. When I saw he already got surgery I was like ‘S***, when is my turn? When can I go to the table?’ My knee is fine. It was a couple weeks longer, but it’s good now. It’s calm.”

De Leeuw said he was “a little bit” nervous going into the surgery because it was his first surgery. He had already been building his muscles, specifically quad strength, in advance of the procedure. The 31-year-old, who shared the team lead in assists with eight, will stay in Chicago for the rehab process.

He is under contract through 2018 with a club option for 2019. When asked about his long-term future, de Leeuw is confident he can return to 100 percent next season.

“I know my body,” he said. “I will be back for sure and I will be back stronger because I can do a lot of stuff in the gym now. That’s one thing I’m sure about. I will be back and I will be back stronger.

“I’m not done with the club and things I want to do here and accomplish here.”

[RELATED: Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason]

His, and Mihailovic’s, absence for the first part of 2018 will also have an impact on how the Fire approach this offseason. De Leeuw established himself as a regular starter and Mihailovic was starting to become a regular in the lineup towards the end of the year, especially after de Leeuw’s injury.

“We, for a while, had believed we had good depth, we had emerging talent on the attacking side,” general manager Nelson Rodriguez said. “We could maybe disproportionately focus our attention in other areas, other lines of play, but we have to be realistic. They each could miss a large portion of the season so we have to reconsider our initial thoughts and revise our plan a little bit. For sure now, I think we’ll need to look to add some attacking piece because that’s a lot of minutes that we planned on that will need to be filled.”

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

basti-face.jpg
USA TODAY

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

It was locker clean out day for the Fire and while there was definitely a last day of school feel in the locker room, a number of the players left Toyota Park on Wednesday not knowing their immediate futures.

Just seven of the 30 players that finished 2017 on the roster have guaranteed contracts for 2018: Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean, Jorge Corrales, David Accam, Michael de Leeuw, Nemanja Nikolic and Luis Solignac. A healthy number more can safely head into the winter knowing they will have their team options picked up (Dax McCarty, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster to name a few), but plenty more face uncertainty.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said the front office is “still discussing” which players will be brought back and which won’t. Rodriguez added that he is about halfway through exit interviews with the players and expects to finish them by the end of the week.

“The rules allow us to not to have to make that decision until late November, early December, the first day of December, so we won’t,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll take our time in doing that and we’ll explore internal options and options that may present themselves from the international market.”

The big question mark is German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. The 33-year-old is out of contract and is currently in Serbia with his Serbian wife, Ana Ivanovic.

“Our conversations I would characterize are going very well, very positively,” Rodriguez said. “We remain optimistic that Basti and we will reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.

“I won’t put a timeline on it. I think Basti has proven his importance to our club and to our team and that remains a priority to bring him back.”

Along with Schweinsteiger, center back Joao Meira is the only other player not already guaranteed for 2018 that the Fire do not hold an option on.

Rodriguez admitted injuries will also play a part in the decision process. Accam had surgery to repair two hernias in his hip on Tuesday and is expected to be fully healthy by December, but de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic will miss a significant chunk of the 2018 season. Mihailovic already had his ACL surgery while de Leeuw's ACL surgery is scheduled for Thursday morning. The absence of those two players, who figured to be regulars next season, for what could be around half of the season alters Rodriguez's plan for 2018.

After a much-improved regular season, which saw the Fire finish with the third best record in the league, was followed up by a one-and-done playoff exit, the key this winter will be how much things should change.

“The arc of this offseason will be that delicate balance,” Rodriguez said. “We know we need to improve. We know we like our core, but change is inevitable. You can’t have both. We can’t fully retain this group and add pieces.”

While coach Veljko Paunovic, who denied any connection to the open Serbia national team job at the start of the press conference, has already been on a scouting trip and has others planned in Europe and South America, he said his first choice is to have the current players come back improved for next season.

“The guys that we decide to come back, they have to come back better than they left,” Paunovic said before calling adding other players Plan B.

So while there are only hints to go on for now, the first dominoes of the Fire’s offseason will take place in about three weeks time.