Fire

Bastian Schweinsteiger could miss rest of regular season and that might not be such a bad thing

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger could miss rest of regular season and that might not be such a bad thing

The last time there was a break in Major League Soccer, the Fire did not return from the break well.

The Fire had 17 days between matches while MLS took a break for the Gold Cup and lost six of the first seven matches after entering the break with a 12-match unbeaten run in MLS play. With an off week from matches last weekend due to World Cup qualifiers, coach Veljko Paunovic is hoping his group won’t fall into a similar problem this time around.

“I think this is a very challenging moment for us because what we know from the past, when we had that break after Portland’s game, we didn’t come back well,” Paunovic said. “I’m not saying I would do something different at that point, but we learned from that and now we have a different approach.”

Paunovic also mentioned striker Nemanja Nikolic, who has regained the league lead in goals with 21 on the season, as someone who slumped after the break. Nikolic failed to score in the first eight games after the Gold Cup break, but has now scored five goals in the past five matches.

While Paunovic is trying to get his team to improve on how it comes out of a break, the time off could be beneficial given the injuries to some key players, namely Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German returned from a calf injury in the Fire’s last game on Sept. 30, playing 19 minutes off the bench. However, Schweinsteiger left practice on Oct. 4 with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury and wasn’t at training this Wednesday.

That’s not a good sign for him playing Sunday against Philadelphia. As for the season finale a week later in Houston, what's the point? There's a decent chance the Fire won't be playing for much in the final regular season game. A win against Philadelphia would likely be enough to lock up a home game and a first-round bye could be out of the team's reach as well. The difference between the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds is negligible. Even if a home game in the first round could be at stake, would it be wise to send Schweinsteiger back on the field into a late afternoon game in Houston with the club's first playoff game in five years likely just three days away?

In addition, another midfielder, Juninho, is still battling his way back from a knee injury that has kept him off the field since Sept. 9. Juninho was running at training this week. As usual, Paunovic didn't tip his hand, but said both players are in the “final phase” of recovery.

“We’ll see how the issues and the small tightness that they have in case of Basti and the knee in case of Juni if they can recover for this game.” he said. “Obviously we want them to be ready for that game, but also we have to be smart and see if they really can make it and impact the game.”

[MORE FIRE: What’s in the future for the U.S. national team? Perhaps two Fire players]

On top of waiting for two key midfielders to return, Paunovic has to figure out a way to replace the injured Michael de Leeuw in the lineup. The Dutch forward who leads the team in assists suffered a ruptured ACL in the last match and will miss the rest of the season.

“I think there are some specifics that cannot be replaced,” Paunovic said of de Leeuw. “We believe that we have replacements… We are confident.”

In the absence of Schweinsteiger and possibly Juninho on Sunday, 18-year-old Djordje Mihailovic could get another start next to Dax McCarty, returning from national team duty, in central midfield and an attacking trio of Luis Solignac, Arturo Alvarez and David Accam could support Nikolic in the attack.

The downside to Schweinsteiger sitting is that Paunovic won't have as much time to see how the lineup best works without de Leeuw, but the risk of not having one of the team's most influential players as fresh as possible for the playoffs may not be worth it.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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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.