Fire

What to watch for in the rest of the Fire's 2016 season

What to watch for in the rest of the Fire's 2016 season

The standings in Major League Soccer paint a clear picture for the Chicago Fire, and it’s not a pretty one.

The Fire sit all alone in last place in the league and time is running out to make the playoffs. The Fire have to make up a nine-point deficit with just six games remaining and pass four teams in the Eastern Conference along the way. There are four road games left on the Fire’s schedule and the team has won once away from Toyota Park all season so any furious closing rally seems unlikely.

Coach Veljko Paunovic will surely continue to talk about wanting his team to play hard in every game and playing to win each match as it comes. As for the players, they should remain motivated because most of them aren’t guaranteed for 2017.

The club confirmed that currently six players have guaranteed contracts for 2017: David Accam, Michael Harrington, Johan Kappelhof, John Goossens, Michael de Leeuw and David Arshakyan. Every other player has a 2017 club option, although some of those could become guaranteed before the end of the season by hitting triggers in their contracts.

So with that in mind, here’s a few things Fire fans can look for in the rest of 2016:

Can David Arshakyan settle in and provide the Fire a different dynamic up top?

Arshakyan made his first start with the Fire in Friday’s draw with D.C. He showed some glimpses of good touch and hold up play, but wasn’t a major factor. He is 22 and adjusting to a new league, country and club so patience is warranted.

He is under contract for 2017 so the rest of this season can provide him the settling in period so theoretically he can hit the ground running next season. If he can prove to be a threat in the air and give the Fire another reliable option up top, that could change how general manager Nelson Rodriguez approaches the forward position in the offseason.

[SHOP: Get a Fire home jersey right here]

Will more young players see more playing time?

The Fire’s USL affiliate, Saint Louis FC, has one game left in its season and is already eliminated from playoff contention. Patrick Doody, Collin Fernandez and Alex Morrell have been on loan with the club, but Morrell is recovering from a hamstring injury. None of those three has made a start with the Fire, but all three have had to overcome injuries throughout the season. Doody hasn’t appeared for the Fire all season after making seven appearances, six of which were starts, last season. Fernandez has made two substitute appearances with the Fire this season totaling eight minutes. Morrell has come off the bench four times for the Fire, but hasn’t appeared since June. Drew Conner began the season on loan in St. Louis, but hasn’t seen any action with the Fire since he was recalled in June.

Rodriguez and Paunovic have both said that the Fire will continue to put out the strongest lineup the rest of the way, but that could be tested if the team is officially eliminated from playoff contention.

“We don’t play guys because they’re young,” Rodriguez said on Aug. 30. “We don’t play guys because they have an option. We play guys that we think give us the best chance to win.”

Will on-loan players Khaly Thiam and Rodrigo Ramos make a positive impression?

There are two foreign players on loan with the Fire in Thiam and Ramos. Both have recently run into tough times with the club.

Ramos seemed like a revelation as a 21-year-old Brazilian right back earlier in the season, but hasn’t played in the past eight league matches and was not in the list of available substitutes for five of those matches. He has not played since being subbed off at halftime of the U.S. Open Cup semifinal at New England on Aug. 9, when he committed a foul in the box for a penalty kick.

Paunovic hasn’t said what changed, but clearly something has. Ramos played in 18 of the club’s first 20 matches and hasn’t played in any of the last eight. Unless something changes in the final six matches, it doesn’t look good for Ramos to be retained on a permanent basis.

As for Thiam, he had become a regular contributor in midfield since joining the Fire on loan in May. A red card in D.C. on Aug. 27 may have changed that. After serving the suspension for the red card, Thiam sat out the match against Toronto on Sept. 10 and came off the bench last Friday. It’s not yet long enough to know for sure if Thiam has damaged his status with the team, but he hasn’t started since the red card. If Thiam can play well down the stretch, it could make a case for the Fire to keep him for 2017. If not, he is likely headed back to Hungary.

[MORE FIRE: Fire notes: Injuries, Polster honored, Ramos' playing time]

Will the team finish with some positive momentum?

The Fire finished with 30 points and were dead last in MLS last season. Right now the Fire have 27 points and are dead last in MLS. The Fire already snapped the road winless streak this season. Improving upon last year’s point total and league position would be notable just to show some form of progress, even if it is only marginal. The roster is just over a year younger than it was at the close of the 2015 season (average age of 26.8 then vs. 25.5 now). If the Fire can improve on last year in a season when the club turned over the entire technical staff and got younger, that would be something positive the club can claim heading into 2017.

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.