Fire

Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit

Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit

The Fire’s playoff run was over less than 15 minutes after it started so what the heck happened?

From the run of play the Fire were competitive with the New York Red Bulls with both possession and total shots being fairly even. However, two defensive blunders, with multiple players at fault on each of the early goals, put the Fire down 2-0 in 11 minutes.

There was no coming back from that and once the team sent numbers forward late in the second half to try to come back, New York put the game away. The 4-0 loss was a sour way for the Fire’s season to end.

“I thought we got outplayed all over the field,” said midfielder Dax McCarty, a former Red Bulls player. “That’s a team that’s been battle tested in the playoffs now for five, six years. They’ve experienced a lot of hard games, a lot of tough games in the playoffs. They’ve experienced a lot of disappointed in the playoffs and we aren’t quite there yet.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn’t start and played only 25 minutes after coming off a calf injury. While the German said he felt good, there wasn’t much he could do. Five minutes after he entered the match, the Red Bulls took a 3-0 lead.

Coach Veljko Paunovic wasn’t angry or despondent in his postgame press conference. He tried to stay upbeat while looking towards next year. He also took the blame for the ugly 4-0 loss.

“It’s my fault,” Paunovic said. “Obviously it’s my fault. If there is somebody to blame it’s my fault because I think we all could do better.”

[RELATED: Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress]

The Fire finished with the third best record in Major League Soccer, but laid an egg in the postseason. There’s plenty of ways to look at that. The team didn’t have enough experience, they were shorthanded due to injuries, they played tight.

Throw any excuse out there, all that matters is the team made a quick exit out of the playoffs and now the offseason has begun.

“It’s just frustrating that we lost and we lost in such a frustrating manner,” McCarty said. “We worked hard, we showed heart, but realistically we barely put up a fight there in the beginning. I thought the first 20 minutes we were struggling to feel like we were in a playoff game. You can’t do that if you want to win.”

Schweinsteiger’s future, along with the futures of many players, will remain in question for the coming weeks. The German’s final words of his first year with the Fire were all positive. He spoke positively about the coaching staff and the teammates, but admitted the team wasn’t good enough yet to win a title.

“I think it was a great success, achievement, what we did this season,” Schweinsteiger said. “I think you need to add one or the other piece. If you have 10 steps, I think we took seven. Eight, nine, 10 those are the hardest ones.”

McCarty echoed Schweinsteiger’s sentiment.

“A lot of guys took a big step forward, but we just weren’t quite ready to make a real realistic push at a championship and that showed in our performance tonight,” McCarty said.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

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USA TODAY

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

Due to an early playoff exit, the players of the 2017 Chicago Fire have begun to disperse around the country to see family and friends back home during the offseason.

It’s not hard to make an argument that injuries played a significant part in the team’s playoff defeat. Michael de Leeuw went down on Sept. 30 with a torn ACL, Bastian Schweinsteiger played only 19 minutes in the last seven games of the season and Juninho wasn’t quite back to 100 percent when the playoffs rolled around. De Leeuw’s absence especially seemed to change the way the team played.

“Michael is loved by everyone in the locker room,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That’s off the field, but on the field he also put his best always. His quality, his mentality, character, leadership. He’s a winner, he wanted to win. That piece maybe we missed.”

More than five weeks after suffering the knee injury against New York City FC on Sept. 30, de Leeuw had his surgery on Thursday morning. Teenager Djordje Mihailovic suffered an ACL tear in the playoff loss nearly a full month after de Leeuw’s, but still had his surgery a week before the Dutchman.

“It was also my MCL,” de Leeuw said the day before his surgery. “It was a little bit sprained so that’s why they had to wait a little bit longer. Djordje only had his ACL, that’s why he already got surgery. When I saw he already got surgery I was like ‘S***, when is my turn? When can I go to the table?’ My knee is fine. It was a couple weeks longer, but it’s good now. It’s calm.”

De Leeuw said he was “a little bit” nervous going into the surgery because it was his first surgery. He had already been building his muscles, specifically quad strength, in advance of the procedure. The 31-year-old, who shared the team lead in assists with eight, will stay in Chicago for the rehab process.

He is under contract through 2018 with a club option for 2019. When asked about his long-term future, de Leeuw is confident he can return to 100 percent next season.

“I know my body,” he said. “I will be back for sure and I will be back stronger because I can do a lot of stuff in the gym now. That’s one thing I’m sure about. I will be back and I will be back stronger.

“I’m not done with the club and things I want to do here and accomplish here.”

[RELATED: Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason]

His, and Mihailovic’s, absence for the first part of 2018 will also have an impact on how the Fire approach this offseason. De Leeuw established himself as a regular starter and Mihailovic was starting to become a regular in the lineup towards the end of the year, especially after de Leeuw’s injury.

“We, for a while, had believed we had good depth, we had emerging talent on the attacking side,” general manager Nelson Rodriguez said. “We could maybe disproportionately focus our attention in other areas, other lines of play, but we have to be realistic. They each could miss a large portion of the season so we have to reconsider our initial thoughts and revise our plan a little bit. For sure now, I think we’ll need to look to add some attacking piece because that’s a lot of minutes that we planned on that will need to be filled.”