Fire

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)

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

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.