As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”

Can Fire secure a return to Toyota Park in the regular season home finale?

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Can Fire secure a return to Toyota Park in the regular season home finale?

With 32 games complete in a 34-game season, it’s hard to say the standings lie at this point.

Some of the teams are very tight, but there’s no secret which teams are good, which teams are bad and which teams mediocre. In fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the Fire have not looked like an elite MLS team for a while despite a solid 3-1-2 record in the past six matches. Still, players on the Fire are chasing the level the team achieved during its 12-match MLS unbeaten run in the middle of the season.

“I think we’re just trying to refine and get back to where the time where we were unbeaten,” defender Matt Polster said. “I think we’re trying to find that form again. San Jose I thought we did a really good job and I think that was kind of what we were looking for and then I thought we did that in stretches for New York City, but... I thought we could have done better in the game entirely.”

The Fire hasn’t won consecutive games since June. Occasional glimpses of quality play recently have inspired hope in Fire fans that the team is back on track, but consistency has been elusive. The 3-0 win against D.C. on Sept. 16 was followed by a dud in Philadelphia a week later. A shockingly good 4-1 win in San Jose, a win that clinched a playoff berth, preceded an entirely forgettable home draw against NYC in a big game.

On Sunday, the Fire host Philadelphia in the final home game of the regular season. The match, which will be televised on NBC Sports Chicago+ (channel finder) with coverage starting at 3:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live, is big for playoff seeding, but is also a good chance for a confidence-boosting win with the playoffs less than two weeks away.

The Union beat the Fire 3-1 three weeks ago. What can the Fire do better from that game?

“I think we can do everything better,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “Every game is a different game, even as we play the same opponent, especially because different momentums of both teams. When that happened both teams were still in playoff run and with that kind of pressure, but now it’s different.”

Philadelphia took a 3-0 lead in that game, but was eliminated from playoff contention last week. The Fire’s struggles against Eastern Conference playoff teams will remain a concern, but perhaps showing the proper adjustments to beat a team that just beat them badly would be an encouraging sign for the Fire.

“I think we need to figure out how to break them down better,” Polster said of Philadelphia. “They did a good job against us defensively, kind of making it difficult to play through. If we can find ways to help them out, we’ll scope it out later in the week.”

A win by the Fire coupled with a Columbus draw or loss in Orlando, which will be Kaka's final home game for the Lions, would lock up at least a home game in the first round of the playoffs for the Fire.

Injury wise, Juninho will miss his fifth straight game due to a knee injury and Bastian Schweinsteiger was listed as questionable, but missed time in training this week.

Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: NBC Sports Chicago+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins Sunday at 3:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire 15-10-7 (52 points), Union 10-13-9 (39 points)

Bastian Schweinsteiger could miss rest of regular season and that might not be such a bad thing

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger could miss rest of regular season and that might not be such a bad thing

The last time there was a break in Major League Soccer, the Fire did not return from the break well.

The Fire had 17 days between matches while MLS took a break for the Gold Cup and lost six of the first seven matches after entering the break with a 12-match unbeaten run in MLS play. With an off week from matches last weekend due to World Cup qualifiers, coach Veljko Paunovic is hoping his group won’t fall into a similar problem this time around.

“I think this is a very challenging moment for us because what we know from the past, when we had that break after Portland’s game, we didn’t come back well,” Paunovic said. “I’m not saying I would do something different at that point, but we learned from that and now we have a different approach.”

Paunovic also mentioned striker Nemanja Nikolic, who has regained the league lead in goals with 21 on the season, as someone who slumped after the break. Nikolic failed to score in the first eight games after the Gold Cup break, but has now scored five goals in the past five matches.

While Paunovic is trying to get his team to improve on how it comes out of a break, the time off could be beneficial given the injuries to some key players, namely Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German returned from a calf injury in the Fire’s last game on Sept. 30, playing 19 minutes off the bench. However, Schweinsteiger left practice on Oct. 4 with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury and wasn’t at training this Wednesday.

That’s not a good sign for him playing Sunday against Philadelphia. As for the season finale a week later in Houston, what's the point? There's a decent chance the Fire won't be playing for much in the final regular season game. A win against Philadelphia would likely be enough to lock up a home game and a first-round bye could be out of the team's reach as well. The difference between the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds is negligible. Even if a home game in the first round could be at stake, would it be wise to send Schweinsteiger back on the field into a late afternoon game in Houston with the club's first playoff game in five years likely just three days away?

In addition, another midfielder, Juninho, is still battling his way back from a knee injury that has kept him off the field since Sept. 9. Juninho was running at training this week. As usual, Paunovic didn't tip his hand, but said both players are in the “final phase” of recovery.

“We’ll see how the issues and the small tightness that they have in case of Basti and the knee in case of Juni if they can recover for this game.” he said. “Obviously we want them to be ready for that game, but also we have to be smart and see if they really can make it and impact the game.”

[MORE FIRE: What’s in the future for the U.S. national team? Perhaps two Fire players]

On top of waiting for two key midfielders to return, Paunovic has to figure out a way to replace the injured Michael de Leeuw in the lineup. The Dutch forward who leads the team in assists suffered a ruptured ACL in the last match and will miss the rest of the season.

“I think there are some specifics that cannot be replaced,” Paunovic said of de Leeuw. “We believe that we have replacements… We are confident.”

In the absence of Schweinsteiger and possibly Juninho on Sunday, 18-year-old Djordje Mihailovic could get another start next to Dax McCarty, returning from national team duty, in central midfield and an attacking trio of Luis Solignac, Arturo Alvarez and David Accam could support Nikolic in the attack.

The downside to Schweinsteiger sitting is that Paunovic won't have as much time to see how the lineup best works without de Leeuw, but the risk of not having one of the team's most influential players as fresh as possible for the playoffs may not be worth it.