Juninho

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

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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.

Big playoff implications for Fire's game in Montreal

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Big playoff implications for Fire's game in Montreal

The list of players that won’t be playing in Saturday’s match between the Fire and the Montreal Impact could make for a pretty good team.

The Impact will be without six players who will be away for international duty and the Fire will be missing Dax McCarty for the same reason and are still shorthanded on defense due to injuries.

The timing of having so many players away for both teams coincides with the game having taken on greater significance due to recent results. Montreal (10-9-6, 36 points) had won four straight before dropping a home match to Toronto last weekend. The Fire (12-9-5, 41 points) have lost four in a row and six of seven and are now just five points ahead of the Impact and Montreal has a game in hand.

That means Saturday’s game (televised on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live) is a big one as far as getting into the playoffs. A loss for the Fire means the team’s playoff spot is very much up in the air. A win, or probably even a draw, will allow fans to take a deep breath for now. The Fire lost 3-0 in Montreal just over two weeks ago.

“There we make a couple of mistakes in the beginning of the game,” forward Nemanja Nikolic said. “They opened the game really good and after that we run just for the result. It was a really difficult game for us, now we need to be clever.”

The Impact will be without forward Anthony Jackson-Hamel (Canada), midfielders Blerim Dzemaili (Switzerland), Samuel Piette (Canada) and David Choiniere (Canada) and defenders Laurent Ciman (Belgium) and Shaun Francis (Jamaica). Ciman and Dzemaili are two of Montreal’s best players and Jackson-Hamel is second on the team with seven goals. Piette and Francis are recent acquisitions. Choiniere has been a rarely used sub.

McCarty is arguably the most important player on the Fire and the team’s defense is still going to be down at least three players. Joao Meira and Brandon Vincent will both be out though Matt Polster could return after rejoining the team in training this week. Polster has missed the last three games with a knee injury. Christian Dean’s injury last week against Minnesota means the Fire have two healthy center backs in Johan Kappelhof and Jonathan Campbell.

With all those players missing, things could be very different from the recent meeting. That said, Montreal is still a dangerous team with Ignacio Piatti (15 goals, 4 assists) in the attack.

“Both teams are in a different mood right now with different available players, us because of the injuries and they because of the players that are going with the national team,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “So we will see. It’s going to be a different game definitely. Last year we won there 3-0, this year they won 3-0 so we’ll see this one.

“It’s the opportunity to have a great game and finally recover all this great mood that we had in the past.”

The Fire have lost four straight on the road and given up 11 goals in those four games. The Fire sit fourth in the Eastern Conference and the three teams below in the standings all have at least one game in hand. The sense of urgency to get a result is real.

“We have to do better,” Juninho said. “We know them very well. We know what to expect. It’s going to be a good challenge for us as well. We have to go there and get points. In this time of the year you have to go get points the maximum you can.”

Chicago Fire at Montreal Impact

Where: Stade Saputo, Montreal

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (12-9-5, 41 points), Montreal (10-9-6, 36 points)

Fire focusing on mental side in hopes of ending slide

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Fire focusing on mental side in hopes of ending slide

As the rest of the soccer world closes in on final transfer moves on deadline day, MLS teams have already seen the transfer deadline come and pass.

While teams can still sign free agents until the roster freeze date of Sept. 15, like the Fire did with goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, whatever roster deficiencies teams have they are more or less stuck with through the rest of this season. For the Fire, a collection of players that once looked like one of the best teams in the league has shown plenty of warts in the last several weeks.

The Fire’s two summer additions, Sanchez and defender Christian Dean, have not yet had a positive effect. Sanchez, who was brought in after Jorge Bava went down for the season with elbow surgery, hasn’t made a matchday roster as even the No. 2 goalkeeper yet as he adjusts to the Fire’s system. Dean was brought in to add depth to a position that soon after went through emergency level injuries before Dean became part of the problem with his own injury. The Fire lost all three games Dean played and now he is expected to miss at least the rest of the regular season, if not any postseason run as well.

That means in order to stop the current slide, four straight losses and six out of seven, the Fire will have to look within to turn things around.

“It goes back to the daily work,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have to do our job everyday. We have to get sharp. We have to get strong fitness wise and all that helps so the mentality improves and the confidence, too. We are aware of the situation. The guys are working hard preparing for the next game, next opportunity to fix the things.”

This is where Paunovic seems to be most comfortable. The Serbian coach is always talking about forging a winning attitude and mentality. Now that’s the Fire’s only shot.

“It’s part of the job that I love the most because that’s when the coaches have to step in, take the lead and make the guys understand that they are actually a good team because we are,” Paunovic said. “It’s a part of the work that I love. I cannot say that I’m enjoying, I’m not saying that, but I’m saying that I love the challenge and I’m doing my best to fix the things.”

Just as striker Nemanja Nikolic said he is confident he will get things going again while he is in the middle of an eight-game goalless drought, some of the veteran players on the Fire are saying all the right things about seeing a turnaround happen soon. If the Fire’s slump endures much longer, the team’s once certain playoff spot will start to come into question as the Eastern Conference has proven to be the better of the two conferences in MLS and as the chasing teams are almost all playing well at the moment.

Scenarios like this are why general manager Nelson Rodriguez said it was so important to bring in proven players with winning pedigrees like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho in the offseason. McCarty is away with the U.S. national team for a pair of World Cup qualifiers and Schweinsteiger has shown more frustration with each defeat as he goes through the type of slump he hasn’t endured in his professional career.

“To be honest, we’ve been feeling very sad about it,” Juninho said. “That happens to every single team. You just have to maintain your group of guys ready to go when that type of things happens. I think our group of guys is ready to step forward and to step in in any situation. I think we can do good things in the future.”

Opposing teams have adapted to the Fire's style of play and have been able to punish them for not being able to adapt. Nikolic believes the Fire still have enough to win with this group though.

"It’s also the same team... who was the top on the table a couple of weeks before so we just need to put confidence back, to get that idea, to get that mentality that we had a couple of weeks before," Nikolic said. "The main thing is to believe in the work, in the coach, in the staff, in their idea and all together for sure we will win the games also and hopefully we will be in the playoffs."