Minnesota United FC

Veljko Paunovic after Fire's continued slide: 'It's the mental thing'

Veljko Paunovic after Fire's continued slide: 'It's the mental thing'

Entering Saturday, the Chicago Fire’s skid of five losses in six games featured disappointing results and performances, but nothing shocking or embarrassing.

That may have changed after the 2-1 loss to Minnesota at Toyota Park. The Fire entered with a 10-1-1 home record and the Loons came in winless on the road and tied for the fewest points in the league.

If nothing else, both the performance and the result proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the Fire are not playing as well as they were a couple months ago. Coach Veljko Paunovic doesn’t think it’s physical issues, but rather a drop in confidence and mentality within the team.

“I think it’s the mental thing,” Paunovic said. “We are now in a situation where we are actually running a lot, we are doing a lot, but we are not sharp, we are not efficient. Then it always goes back to the confidence. It always goes back to the mentality. When it’s difficult, you see how everyone behaves against adversity.”

The immediate reaction was a Fire locker room that was more upset than after any home game this season or last. Even last week’s home loss to Toronto there were positives the team could draw from the performance.

After losing to an expansion team that has struggled this season, walking into the locker room was more of a ‘if looks could kill’ situation.

“Right now, I think I’m happy to see that our team is reacting,” Paunovic said. “I’m sure with that mentality and with that mindset at one point we will get the good result that will bring the confidence back. We will have to stick together like I said and keep working until that moment comes.”

Midfielder Dax McCarty has gone on long-winded explanations about what the team needs to improve, and sometimes that came after wins. Even McCarty was short on words with the frustration from another loss fresh in his mind.

“Nobody likes losing so everyone is frustrated, but we’re going to try to stay positive and get out of this,” McCarty said.

McCarty agreed with Paunovic’s assessment that it’s the mental side that is hurting the team right now.

“Yeah, sure, I agree with that a little bit,” McCarty said. “You got to have confidence to score goals and we can’t score goals right now so that’s the frustration.

“If you give the other team breakaways and tap-ins, you’re going to concede goals. On the other end if it takes you 25 shots to score one goal, that’s not a recipe for winning many games.”

[RELATED: After another loss, Fire's sense of urgency 'needs to be ramped up to another level’]

The two issues McCarty pointed to, mistakes and turnovers leading to goals and failing to convert opportunities, have plagued the team in recent weeks. Defensively, none of the Fire’s three injured starters, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster and Joao Meira dressed for the game. On top of that, one of the replacements, Christian Dean, was subbed out at halftime with a left foot injury and was on crutches after the game. Dean has missed time each of the past two years with injuries to that foot.

Nemanja Nikolic’s goal drought extended to eight games. David Accam scored to get the Fire back within a goal after the team trailed 2-0 at halftime and Accam is now two goals behind Nikolic with 14 on the season.

“It doesn’t go so easy like before,” defender Johan Kappelhof said. “Before the first chance was a goal and now we have to work hard for the chances and we don’t finish them and we give too easy (of) goals away. Now it’s a tough time, but we have to regroup and give everything we have to repair.”

Return of the Fire? Fire hope for redemption on Star Wars Night

Return of the Fire? Fire hope for redemption on Star Wars Night

The Chicago Fire are currently licking their wounds like the rebels at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and are hoping Saturday’s game against Minnesota will be the Fire’s version of Return of the Jedi.

The Fire have lost three straight and five of six, but a look at the standings show that a home game against Minnesota may more closely resemble a bunch of hapless stormtroopers than a duel with Darth Vader. The Loons (6-14-4, 22 points) have the fewest points in the league, are winless on the road and have allowed the most goals in the league (51).

Despite facing a bottom-dwelling opponent, the Fire are going to trust their Jedi training and avoid overlooking Saturday’s game.

“MLS is built on parity so you cannot take any team lightly,” goalkeeper Matt Lampson said. “We know they’re a good team. They went to Seattle this past weekend and gave them a hell of a game. We’re going to come in ready for a fight and we just got to play the way we have been playing, the way that we know we can play and it’s going to be really important for us to get three points.”

The game will be live on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. It is Star Wars Night at Toyota Park, thus all the references in this preview.

A disturbance in the Force has hit the Fire's defense in the form of injuries lately. Those injuries have played a role in the Fire’s recent slide with three regular starting defenders going down. Brandon Vincent (quad) and Joao Meira (calf) are out yet again, but Matt Polster (left knee) was training with the rest of the team this week and is listed as questionable. Vincent is back in training, but was limited and worked out on the side.

David Accam, the Fire player most likely to make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, is also listed as questionable with a hip injury. He had the same injury entering the Toronto game last weekend and played all 90 minutes.

Minnesota’s leading goal-scorer, Christian Ramirez, has missed the last two games. He sat out training on Thursday, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and is day-to-day. Another talented Force wielder, Ethan Finlay, scored on his debut for the Loons after being traded from Columbus. His goal gave Minnesota an early lead at the Western Conference leaders, but Minnesota ultimately succumbed to the Dark Side when Clint Dempsey drew and converted a penalty kick in the 94th minute.

“We have a chance to make three points at home against Minnesota and we have to,” Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “We will not make the mistake against Minnesota. They also played in Seattle a very good game away so we will give everything to get three points at home.”

The Fire (12-8-5, 41 points) are in third place heading into this weekend’s action and the schedule presents a good opportunity for the Fire to make ground in the standings. Not only are the Fire hosting last-place Minnesota, but the two New York teams face off Friday night. New York City FC is five points ahead of the Fire for second place while the Red Bulls are three points behind the Fire. A win against the Loons means the Fire will gain ground on at least one of those teams.

Midfielder Dax McCarty’s message heading the Minnesota game was more along the lines of “Do or do not, there is no try.” He does not expect an easy game.

“It’s actually the worst time to play Minnesota,” McCarty said. “We’re not playing well and they’re going to come in here with even more confidence that they can get a result.

“There are no easy games in this league, I can promise you that. Just because they’re where they are in the standings, they have talent and they’re well-coached. They have a lot of guys that can hurt you.”

Chicago Fire vs. Minnesota United

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+

When: Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (12-8-5, 41 points), Minnesota (6-14-4, 22 points)