Fire

Seven interesting things from the Fire's 2018 schedule

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USA TODAY

Seven interesting things from the Fire's 2018 schedule

The 2018 Major League Soccer schedule has been announced and a late change has already shifted something we thought we knew about the Fire's schedule.

For starters, the season opener which was already announced to be March 3 at Colorado, has been moved. With the Rapids in the CONCACAF Champions League, the match was rescheduled to June 13 due to a potential conflict. This takes place over what would have been the break for the 2018 World Cup. However, the Fire don't expect to have any players involved with the U.S. (Dax McCarty) and Ghana (David Accam) both missing out on the tournament.

That means the Fire's season opener will be at home on March 10 against Sporting Kansas City, a week after 20 of the 23 teams in the league will start. The rest of the schedule is listed on the Fire's website.

Here are a few other things that stand out from the schedule drop:

  • Four of the first five matches are now at Toyota Park. We already knew the Fire would host Sporting Kansas City on March 10 and travel to Minnesota a week later, but we now know that the Sporting KC match is the season opener as opposed to just the home opener. What follows the trip to Minnesota is a three-game homestand against Portland, Columbus and the LA Galaxy in that order.
  • Six of the first eight matches are against teams that made the playoffs in 2017. This isn't always the most relevant thing with how quickly teams can become good or bad in MLS, but these teams expect to be good again in 2018. Sporting KC is getting a revamp after trading Benny Feilhaber and spending some money so there are question marks there, but that team could be better if the investment pays off. Portland has a new coach with Caleb Porter leaving. After concluding the three-game homestand, the Fire travel to the New York Red Bulls (which just traded key playmaker Sacha Kljestan) and defending champ Toronto before hosting Atlanta, which should be strong once again.
  • This could be the last year of the Fire-Crew rivalry. Columbus' potential move to Austin has received plenty of attention and if it happens it would strip the Fire of its closest rival. With the expansion of Los Angeles FC (giving MLS an odd number of 23 teams), each Eastern Conference team is playing two conferences foes three times. As rivals, the Fire and Columbus have played three times and that remains true in 2018. The Fire host Columbus on April 7 and August 25 and head to Ohio on May 12.
  • The other team the Fire play three times in 2018 is defending champ Toronto FC. The Fire will play at BMO Field on April 28 and play a back-to-back July 21 at Toyota Park and July 28 in Toronto. That means the two teams the Fire will play three times are the two teams that featured in last year's Eastern Conference finals.
  • D.C. United's new Audi Field won't debut until July, but the Fire will get to play their in its debut season. The two teams will square off on Oct. 7 on national TV. The Fire will not head to Los Angeles FC's Banc of California Stadium and will instead host the expansion team on Sept. 29.
  • Speaking of national TV, even after a playoff appearance and the addition of Bastian Schweinsteiger (the latest reports and rumors are swinging towards the German re-signing) the Fire are apparently not a draw to the English-language national TV broadcasts. The Fire will air on each of those channels once.

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.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

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.