Fire

Nashville officially wins MLS expansion bid, but the Midwest still has gaps

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USA TODAY

Nashville officially wins MLS expansion bid, but the Midwest still has gaps

Major League Soccer made it official on Wednesday: Nashville is getting an expansion team.

The first of four promised MLS expansion teams was announced and awarded to Nashville. Commissioner Don Garber was among the speakers at Wednesday's press conference that made the news, which been reported a couple days prior, official.

"Nashville was not on our radar screen (initially), but one of the things that we take pride in is being open to any discussion to will lead to growing the game in North America," Garber said.

While calling Nashville a city in the Midwest is a stretch, the Tennessee team will become the third-closest team to the Fire. The two closer cities come with asterisks. Minnesota is in the Western Conference, meaning the Fire play the Loons just once a year, and Columbus, the Fire's biggest rival, is in danger of being relocated to Austin, Texas.

It wasn't announced when Nashville will begin play in MLS, although a USL expansion team will kick start things in 2018 before the team moves to MLS. When Nashville begins play in MLS, it will join the Eastern Conference and could restore balance to the two conferences. Los Angeles FC's entry in 2018 has brought the league to an odd number, 23 teams.

An additional expansion team is expected to be announced before the end of the year. The three candidates for that are Cincinnati, Sacramento and Detroit. The latest reports seem to be favoring Cincinnati and Sacramento, although no reports have leaked any information as to which one is getting the nod. While Cincinnati would be a new regional foe for the Fire, Sacramento would continue to leave gaps in the Midwest.

As more cities and teams are added to the MLS map, more rivalries have been created. For all of the attention that has been paid to the trio of Cascadia teams, Seattle didn't have Portland and Vancouver to play until 2011. New York City FC's addition in 2015 has made any games between NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls one of the premier games on the schedule. Two recent expansion teams in Orlando and Atlanta have a budding rivalry. LAFC's arrival should make any game against the LA Galaxy a tense affair.

Meanwhile, the Fire-Columbus rivalry has taken a back seat and could go away. While a marquee rivalry game isn't make or break for the Fire, it would bring more excitement, even if only on those matchdays. Cincinnati could potentially fill in for Columbus if the Crew leave, but that would take time. Detroit would make sense as a rival given the history of Bulls-Pistons and Blackhawks-Red Wings, but that bid doesn't seem to have much steam at the moment.

For now, the Fire and its fans wait for another geographical rival to add an extra intriguing match or two to the schedule.

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.