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.”
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.