Fire

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

In the Fire’s resurgent 2017 season, the team earned its playoff berth on the back of a lot of dominant wins against bad or mediocre teams mixed in with some impressive wins against good teams from the Western Conference.

But one thing is missing: wins against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The field of six teams is all but set, with Columbus clinching on Saturday to join the Fire, Toronto, Atlanta and Saturday’s opponent, New York City FC. The New York Red Bulls are limping into the playoffs, but still have a firm grasp on the final playoff spot.

After Saturday’s 1-1 draw against NYCFC, the Fire’s record against those five teams is now 2-6-3. Each of the five teams has at least one win against the Fire and top seed Toronto has two.

Those two wins have questionable value as well. The Fire beat Columbus came in April. The Crew made changes this summer and are currently on an eight-game unbeaten streak. The Fire also beat Atlanta when its two best players, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, came off the bench.

So with the MLS playoffs just under a month away, Saturday’s game was a chance to not only make up ground in the standings, but to prove the Fire can beat good teams in the East. The Fire hold an impressive 5-1-1 record against the eight teams jockeying for playoff spots in the Western Conference, but those teams aren’t in the Fire’s immediate playoff future.

“Obviously we don’t feel good about the tie,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have two games more. We will build up the mood that will prepare the team now. We will first recover and we’ll look towards winning all six points. Obviously we know that’s easy and simple to say, but it’s not easy to do, but we are confident in our team.”

Paunovic opened his press conference on a somber note by speaking about Michael de Leeuw’s injury. The Dutch forward suffered a knee injury, was helped off the field by two trainers and was subbed off in the 30th minute. Paunovic said it “doesn’t look good,” but the team is awaiting MRI results to see the extent of the damage. If it is significant enough to keep him out of the playoffs, that would be a blow to the team.

The Fire remain in fourth place after Saturday’s games. Atlanta, which is in third-place with one more point and one more game remaining than the Fire, drew at New England. Columbus won to move within two points of the Fire for the final hosting spot in the first round, but the Crew’s final two games are on the road so the Fire appear likely to finish fourth.

[RELATED: See the latest standings and scenarios in the playoff tracker]

Despite having clinched, no one on the team was thinking about feeling relaxed with that accomplishment out of the way.

“It took a little bit of pressure off, but we’re still focusing on getting a top spot in the conference,” midfielder Djordje Mihailovic said. “Maybe second place, third place. That’s what we’re going for. There’s no letting off any bit.”

The Fire next play on Oct. 15 after MLS takes a break for international matches. Philadelphia comes to Toyota Park for the final regular season home match and the following Sunday the Fire play at Houston.

“I think we got to get back onto the game we did in San Jose,” forward Luis Solignac said of the team's 4-1 win on the road three days before. “It was a perfect example to build on. Be sharp with a killer instinct in the final third, take the chances and I think that’s our focus. Keep organized and keep our minds in the right way that it’s win these two games to get in the best shape to the playoffs.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”