Fire to return to Florida for the preseason


Fire to return to Florida for the preseason

For Chicagoans enduring numerous days of temperatures in the single digits, it's probably hard to believe that the MLS preseason is less than three weeks away.

The Fire's preseason will officially begin on Jan. 22 with entrance physicals for the players. The team will finish out the week with four days of training at the recently built Toyota Park Dome.

The dome finished construction during the 2017 season and was used by the team at least once during the regular season after heavy rains came down on the practice field. It is located on the north side of the Toyota Park property. In previous years the Fire had utilized the Fire Pitch on the North Side to begin the preseason.

After the opening week, the team will travel to Florida, where it has spent each preseason under coach Veljko Paunovic. The first stint will be in Tampa from Jan. 28 to Feb. 8 and a second stint will be from Feb. 11 to 24 at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, where the Fire also had the second leg of preseason last year.

No matches were announced. The Fire will have to fill in some time after returning from Florida because the season opener was moved back to March 10 after the originally scheduled opener in Colorado was moved to June.

The Fire only have 18 players under contract (not including Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is reportedly nearing an agreement to return) so things should heat up between now and the start of preseason. While general manager Nelson Rodriguez has said repeatedly that the start of preseason is not a hard deadline to complete the roster, it is fair to assume it will be more complete by then.

All has remained quiet on the homegrown front although Indiana senior defender Grant Lillard, a first-team All-American by multiple outlets, is the most likely to sign. The draft combine begins on Jan. 13 and the draft is Jan. 19. The Fire hold the No. 15 pick in the first round.

There have also been multiple rumors. As always, most don't materialize, but the Fire should have some room to add a significant signing, even if Schweinsteiger comes back. Along with the continuing rumors about Colombian playmaker Juan Quintero, there was a report from The Daily Mail in England linking the Fire to Barcelona winger Arda Turan.

Especially after the trade of Arturo Alvarez, right wing is a position of need for the Fire. The ACL tears to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic may force Luis Solignac to play underneath Nemanja Nikolic in the attack, leaving the Fire with no options at right wing. Daniel Johnson, coming off a promising, but injury-riddled rookie season, typically plays at left wing but could likely move to the right if necessary. Either way, the Fire are in need of other attacking options, especially for the first few months of the season until de Leeuw and Mihailovic return.

Most of this should play out within the next few weeks if not sooner. Last year the Fire added Nemanja Nikolic and Juninho in December, but there have not been any additions yet.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


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


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.