Fire

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”

Can Fire secure a return to Toyota Park in the regular season home finale?

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USA TODAY

Can Fire secure a return to Toyota Park in the regular season home finale?

With 32 games complete in a 34-game season, it’s hard to say the standings lie at this point.

Some of the teams are very tight, but there’s no secret which teams are good, which teams are bad and which teams mediocre. In fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the Fire have not looked like an elite MLS team for a while despite a solid 3-1-2 record in the past six matches. Still, players on the Fire are chasing the level the team achieved during its 12-match MLS unbeaten run in the middle of the season.

“I think we’re just trying to refine and get back to where the time where we were unbeaten,” defender Matt Polster said. “I think we’re trying to find that form again. San Jose I thought we did a really good job and I think that was kind of what we were looking for and then I thought we did that in stretches for New York City, but... I thought we could have done better in the game entirely.”

The Fire hasn’t won consecutive games since June. Occasional glimpses of quality play recently have inspired hope in Fire fans that the team is back on track, but consistency has been elusive. The 3-0 win against D.C. on Sept. 16 was followed by a dud in Philadelphia a week later. A shockingly good 4-1 win in San Jose, a win that clinched a playoff berth, preceded an entirely forgettable home draw against NYC in a big game.

On Sunday, the Fire host Philadelphia in the final home game of the regular season. The match, which will be televised on NBC Sports Chicago+ (channel finder) with coverage starting at 3:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live, is big for playoff seeding, but is also a good chance for a confidence-boosting win with the playoffs less than two weeks away.

The Union beat the Fire 3-1 three weeks ago. What can the Fire do better from that game?

“I think we can do everything better,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “Every game is a different game, even as we play the same opponent, especially because different momentums of both teams. When that happened both teams were still in playoff run and with that kind of pressure, but now it’s different.”

Philadelphia took a 3-0 lead in that game, but was eliminated from playoff contention last week. The Fire’s struggles against Eastern Conference playoff teams will remain a concern, but perhaps showing the proper adjustments to beat a team that just beat them badly would be an encouraging sign for the Fire.

“I think we need to figure out how to break them down better,” Polster said of Philadelphia. “They did a good job against us defensively, kind of making it difficult to play through. If we can find ways to help them out, we’ll scope it out later in the week.”

A win by the Fire coupled with a Columbus draw or loss in Orlando, which will be Kaka's final home game for the Lions, would lock up at least a home game in the first round of the playoffs for the Fire.

Injury wise, Juninho will miss his fifth straight game due to a knee injury and Bastian Schweinsteiger was listed as questionable, but missed time in training this week.

Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: NBC Sports Chicago+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins Sunday at 3:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire 15-10-7 (52 points), Union 10-13-9 (39 points)