Fire

What’s in the future for the U.S. national team? Perhaps two Fire players

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USA TODAY

What’s in the future for the U.S. national team? Perhaps two Fire players

In the aftermath of the U.S. national team failing to qualify for the World Cup, fans are somewhere in the stages of grief.

Past that is a chance to look ahead to the future. The U.S. men don’t play a competitive game at the senior level until the 2019 Gold Cup. There’s always a long gap after a World Cup, but add another eight months to that by missing out on the World Cup and that becomes a very long time between truly meaningful matches.

What that gap should provide is an opportunity for younger players newer to the national team setup to get more chances in the coming months. Two players that may be given those chances are Fire fullbacks Brandon Vincent, 23, and Matt Polster, 24.

Vincent, the Fire’s second-year left back who has shown notable improvement from his rookie season, has already been capped with the senior national team. He appeared as a substitute against Canada in a friendly in February 2016. He was a part of the annual January camps where a group of mostly MLS players in their offseasons join the national team while the European-based players remain with their clubs while those seasons hit the midway point.

Polster has moved between a central defensive midfield role and right back in his three seasons with the Fire. He was a part of the failed Olympic qualifying team in 2016 and also took part in that same January camp as Vincent, but did not play. Polster was included in the preliminary roster for this summer’s Gold Cup, but was not selected to the final group.

Both have been key to the Fire’s success this year with the Fire’s streak of six losses in seven matches happening when both were out injured.

Vincent’s reaction to the American failure was more from the fan’s perspective than a player's.

“I don’t know if I’m even close to being in the conversation so it’s more of a fan type view for me,” Vincent said. “It’s gonna be weird not watching them.”

Polster related to some of the younger players on the team he has played with.

“I think the biggest thing is it’s just disappointing for all the guys,” Polster said. “They put a lot of effort in and obviously it didn’t go in their favor. To go through the entire hex and not qualify is disappointing, especially for the young guys like (Christian) Pulisic, (Kellyn) Acosta, (Paul) Arriola…. To not get that experience at a young age is disappointing.”

Polster played right back in Olympic qualifying, but was still playing midfield with the Fire at the time. This season, he has moved to right back and looked better at that spot than he did when he played there as a rookie. Fullbacks have always been hard to come by for the U.S. so Polster could at least be in the conversation going forward. He even had his own ambitions for trying to squeeze into this World Cup roster.

“The ultimate goal was that they’d qualify and hopefully I could make January camp and then I could turn some heads,” Polster said. “That was my thought process and I really wanted to give it a go. Hopefully I can do what I can to maybe help and be a part of it one day.”

If Polster has extra value for playing right back, Vincent may get double points for being a left-footed left back. His national team prospects may be greater than Polster’s for that reason.

“I’ll do everything I can to play as well as I can and improve as much as I can, but getting in that group is out of my hands,” Vincent said. “It’s not really my thing to worry about as long as I produce on the field here in Chicago, that’s all I can focus on.”

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.