New York City FC

Notes from the rewatch: The returns of Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: The returns of Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam

What was a big game on paper never quite felt like one on the field.

The Fire and New York City FC played to a 1-1 draw on Saturday and neither team hit fifth gear. That likely has to due with the fact that it was the third game in eight days for both teams and key players were coming back from injury on both sides.

David Villa didn't played in New York's trip to Montreal on Wednesday and David Accam and Bastian Schweinsteiger came back from injury for the Fire, but both played limited minutes.

With a combined five shots on target, neither team created a ton of chances.

"It wasn’t really back and forth action, but two good teams squaring off," NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. "It was good. I think it was a fair result."

The Fire began the match with a 30-pass sequence that lasted 105 seconds. It led to nothing, but it's worth a mention. NYCFC attempted and completed just one pass in the first three minutes.

Both teams had stretches of dominant play, but neither peppered the opposing goal much. NYCFC picked it up a notch a few minutes after the Fire took the lead and got the equalizer via Villa just before halftime. There was a short surge from the Fire a few minutes after Schweinsteiger entered, but it was New York which was putting on the pressure in the final 10 minutes. There wasn’t the urgency shown by the Fire to get a win the team really needed in the race for playoff seeding, but that also may have been due to fatigue from three games in eight days.

While the draw didn't exactly change anything in the standings, the match did give a glimpse of how Accam and Schweinsteiger are doing in their recoveries and showed the first look of how life after Michael de Leeuw could be for the Fire.

Accam's unusual stint

Accam didn't start the match even after not traveling to San Jose. His hip injury is something that has bothered him for weeks and it sounds like it will be an on and off issue for the rest of the season.

So Accam started off the bench, which allowed coach Veljko Paunovic to start the same attacking four he did in the 4-1 win in San Jose. When de Leeuw went down with an injury midway through the first half it forced Accam to enter earlier than Paunovic had planned. It's not often players who sub into a match also have to sub out, but that's what happened with Accam.

He still showed off his speed to beat or get around defenders on a few occasions, even in the second half, but Accam didn't take any shots. He completed just seven of 14 passes in his 56 minutes on the field.

After the game, Paunovic said Accam played more than they had planned for him to.

"We wanted to give some time to recover and rest and get ready for the coming games and the playoff push," Paunovic said.

It's not clear if that means Accam will stay on a limited workload heading into the playoffs or if he will be 100 percent after the week off the team has, but his injury will be something to watch the rest of the season.

Schweinsteiger's rust

Schweinsteiger had missed the previous four matches and played 19 minutes on Saturday. He completed four of six passes and lacked his typical sharpness on the ball, which isn't a surprise.

Afterwards, he said he wasn't yet 100 percent. Like Accam, the week off should be important for the German.

He played in a more advanced role in his short time on the field, filling the spot Michael de Leeuw typically plays. Perhaps that will be an option going forward with de Leeuw hurt.

Life without de Leeuw

Speaking of de Leeuw, Saturday's match showed a few possibilities for how the Fire will play without him. No one on the Fire does what de Leeuw does. He has played underneath Nemanja Nikolic and leads the team with eight assists.

His runs, positioning and knack for creating chances for his teammates out of nowhere will be tough to replace, especially for a team which has had trouble creating chances in the past couple months. Beyond his ability, there aren't others on the team who can play that withdrawn striker/attacking midfield role as comfortably as de Leeuw did.

When Accam replaced him in the 30th minute, Paunovic had him play at striker for a few minutes to get loose without strenuous defensive responsibilities. After that, Accam and Luis Solignac both had stints on the left wing with Arturo Alvarez staying on the right wing.

Once Schweinsteiger entered he played de Leeuw's spot in an effort to limit his defensive responsibilities post-injury and allow him to influence the attack more. Schweinsteiger flanked by some combination of Accam, Solignac and Alvarez could still be dangerous. The problem then is how the Fire fill the other deep midfield role next to Dax McCarty.

Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic have both filled in while Juninho remains out with a knee injury. If Juninho is ready to start in two weeks, Schweinsteiger taking de Leeuw's spot makes sense. If not, that may force a formational shift from the Fire with de Leeuw out.

Sean Johnson happy to see familiar faces in return to Toyota Park

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USA TODAY

Sean Johnson happy to see familiar faces in return to Toyota Park

For seven years, Sean Johnson patrolled the posts for the Fire, but on Saturday he returned as a member of the away team.

Johnson and his New York City FC earned a point at Toyota Park to keep the Fire at arm’s length in the standings and hold onto the second spot in the Eastern Conference. When the game ended, Johnson was shaking hands, hugging and catching up with familiar faces.

“It’s good to be back,” Johnson said. “Having played here for seven years in my career, to be back where it all started and the fans that supported me throughout my career, it’s great.”

The Fire traded Johnson, who made 176 MLS appearances with the Fire, in the offseason to his hometown team of Atlanta as that team was preparing for its expansion season. However, Atlanta had the opportunity to land national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan and took it, making Johnson expendable. Johnson was then sent to NYCFC and news broke before his move to Atlanta was even official. Johnson has started 30 of 32 MLS games for his new team this season.

Johnson made one save in the 1-1 draw after being hung out to dry by teammate Maxi Moralez, who dribbled towards his own goal and then was stripped of the ball right in front, leaving Johnson with no chance to stop Nemanja Nikolic’s 21st goal of the season.

After David Villa tied things up before halftime, scoring his 20th of the season, NYCFC was able to get a positive result.

“I think it’s an important point given the other results that happened tonight,” Johnson said. “For us we’ll take the point. We’ll keep going. I think two games left, anything is possible. We just have to keep chugging along, get everybody healthy and ready to go into the postseason.”

NYCFC is three points ahead of Atlanta, although Atlanta has a game in hand, and four points ahead of the Fire for the second spot and the first-round bye that comes with it. The draw practically eliminated the Fire’s hopes of getting second.

[RELATED: Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come]

Johnson endured the Fire’s struggles in recent years, but sees a more organized team this season.

“They’ve done a good job,” he said. “They’ve organized themselves well so hats off to them, but it’s good to see some old faces, but some new ones as well.”

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

In the Fire’s resurgent 2017 season, the team earned its playoff berth on the back of a lot of dominant wins against bad or mediocre teams mixed in with some impressive wins against good teams from the Western Conference.

But one thing is missing: wins against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The field of six teams is all but set, with Columbus clinching on Saturday to join the Fire, Toronto, Atlanta and Saturday’s opponent, New York City FC. The New York Red Bulls are limping into the playoffs, but still have a firm grasp on the final playoff spot.

After Saturday’s 1-1 draw against NYCFC, the Fire’s record against those five teams is now 2-6-3. Each of the five teams has at least one win against the Fire and top seed Toronto has two.

Those two wins have questionable value as well. The Fire beat Columbus came in April. The Crew made changes this summer and are currently on an eight-game unbeaten streak. The Fire also beat Atlanta when its two best players, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, came off the bench.

So with the MLS playoffs just under a month away, Saturday’s game was a chance to not only make up ground in the standings, but to prove the Fire can beat good teams in the East. The Fire hold an impressive 5-1-1 record against the eight teams jockeying for playoff spots in the Western Conference, but those teams aren’t in the Fire’s immediate playoff future.

“Obviously we don’t feel good about the tie,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have two games more. We will build up the mood that will prepare the team now. We will first recover and we’ll look towards winning all six points. Obviously we know that’s easy and simple to say, but it’s not easy to do, but we are confident in our team.”

Paunovic opened his press conference on a somber note by speaking about Michael de Leeuw’s injury. The Dutch forward suffered a knee injury, was helped off the field by two trainers and was subbed off in the 30th minute. Paunovic said it “doesn’t look good,” but the team is awaiting MRI results to see the extent of the damage. If it is significant enough to keep him out of the playoffs, that would be a blow to the team.

The Fire remain in fourth place after Saturday’s games. Atlanta, which is in third-place with one more point and one more game remaining than the Fire, drew at New England. Columbus won to move within two points of the Fire for the final hosting spot in the first round, but the Crew’s final two games are on the road so the Fire appear likely to finish fourth.

[RELATED: See the latest standings and scenarios in the playoff tracker]

Despite having clinched, no one on the team was thinking about feeling relaxed with that accomplishment out of the way.

“It took a little bit of pressure off, but we’re still focusing on getting a top spot in the conference,” midfielder Djordje Mihailovic said. “Maybe second place, third place. That’s what we’re going for. There’s no letting off any bit.”

The Fire next play on Oct. 15 after MLS takes a break for international matches. Philadelphia comes to Toyota Park for the final regular season home match and the following Sunday the Fire play at Houston.

“I think we got to get back onto the game we did in San Jose,” forward Luis Solignac said of the team's 4-1 win on the road three days before. “It was a perfect example to build on. Be sharp with a killer instinct in the final third, take the chances and I think that’s our focus. Keep organized and keep our minds in the right way that it’s win these two games to get in the best shape to the playoffs.”