Fire

Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress

Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress

In the playoffs, big moments in a game are magnified and the smallest things can get huge amounts of attention.

However, the Fire’s 4-0 loss on Wednesday was not about fine margins. Two early defensive breakdowns and the inability to seriously threaten the Red Bulls’ goal led to an embarrassing loss.

The emotions Fire fans are enduring right now cover up an important fact: this season was ultimately a solid step forward for the Fire.

When Nelson Rodriguez took over as general manager at the end of the 2015 season, the Fire were a laughing stock. That was the third straight season the club missed the playoffs and in 2015, the team finished dead last in MLS.

Even after sweeping changes that included bringing in coach Veljko Paunovic and revamping a roster that began the year with no players who had been on the team for even two years, the Fire finished dead last again in 2016.

During the losing, Rodriguez continued to preach patience. He repeatedly talked about “getting it right, not getting it fast.”

[RELATED: Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit]

Only this year did it become apparent that some of the foundation was in fact put in place in 2016. That wasn’t so easy to see when the team continued to lose on the field, and often looked bad doing so. Players that were key in the team making the playoffs this year were acquired in 2016. Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira proved to be a solid center back pairing, 2016 first-round pick Brandon Vincent emerged as one of the better left backs in the league after a mistake-filled rookie year, Luis Solignac found a niche on the wing and Michael de Leeuw, although injured for the playoffs, embraced his role as supporting striker while Nemanja Nikolic took all the glory on the way to winning an MLS Golden Boot.

This offseason brought more good acquisitions that helped put the team over the top, including Nikolic. Dax McCarty, Juninho and of course big name star Bastian Schweinsteiger revitalized a midfield that was among the league’s worst a year ago.

So while Wednesday’s ugly defeat marked an earlier end to the postseason than the Fire expected, a wider view should allow for the season as a whole to still be viewed as a success, even if only when considering the context of previous seasons.

Just ask Schweinsteiger, who pointed out the surprise of the team’s regular season success.

“I have to say that this team did an amazing job this season,” Schweinsteiger said. “We were third in the league. I know the players decide everything, but you have to be realistic. Before the season if someone told you guys Chicago Fire would be third after 35 games you would probably say, all, that would not be the case.”

McCarty, who has been on playoff teams eight straight years, called making the playoffs “the bare minimum requirement for success.” The Fire reached that bare minimum and nothing more, but after back-to-back last place finishes, it’s noteworthy progress and brings with it the hope for more progress in the future.

If 2018 mirrors 2017, things might not get such a positive shine, but in the grand scheme of things, 2017 was better than expected and brought life back into what appeared to be a lifeless MLS franchise.

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.