Matt Polster

Fire defenders Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent called up to national team

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USA TODAY

Fire defenders Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent called up to national team

When the U.S. men missed the World Cup, it had a massive effect on many aspects of the game in this country, but two Fire players felt that in a more specific way.

Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent had both received call-ups to the January camp in 2016 and had breakout years of sorts in 2017. Both even had an outside shot of going to the World Cup, that is if the team had qualified.

Instead, both will have to put their sights on the 2022 edition and working their way into the team before then. Polster and Vincent both got called in to this year's version of the January camp, the annual, mostly domestic-based training camp during the MLS offseason.

Vincent received his first cap in the camp in 2016 in a friendly against Canada. Polster was in the camp, but didn't play. Polster was brought in to train with the Under-23 Olympic qualifying team, which also failed to qualify.

Former Fire coach Dave Sarachan will be the coach for the camp. Sarachan is a holdover from Bruce Arena's coaching staff and is in charge while the federation waits to name a replacement. With no competitive games on the schedule in 2018, there is no rush to hire a coach and waiting for the World Cup to end will give the U.S. more candidates to choose from.

After the qualifying failure, Polster said he held out hopes of forcing his way into the 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,” he said in October. “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.”

Polster, 24, had shown positive signs in his first two seasons, but lacked consistency while playing in central midfield. This season he moved to right back, a position he played with the Olympic qualifying team, and was a revelation at the position for the Fire. His athletic ability and stamina made him a good fit for the position, although his positioning and crossing ability need improvement.

Vincent, 23, improved upon a rough rookie season to become a key cog at left back for the Fire. Both players benefit from playing at a position that the national team is not deep at, but that is especially true for Vincent, a naturally left-footed player. Left back has been a difficult position to fill for the national team for decades.

Players will report to the camp in California on Jan. 10. A friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina is scheduled for Jan. 28 at the StubHub Center, home of the LA Galaxy. As a result, both players are expected to miss the first portion of the Fire's preseason.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

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)