Veljko Paunovic

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

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.

Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win

Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win

Since the Fire rampaged through May and June, the team and its fans have been aching to see that level of play again.

Saturday’s 3-0 win against D.C. United wasn’t quite there yet, but without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho, Michael de Leeuw and Joao Meira (who played but didn’t start) this game was never going to be about style points. It’s just win, baby time and the Fire did that.

The Fire’s struggles in July and August, combined with hot runs from other teams in the Eastern Conference, have made a first-round bye an outside shot and even a first-round home playoff game is still in question. However, with only five games remaining after Saturday’s victory, it’s just about getting three points and keeping pace.

“The name of the game is when you get to this point in the season, five games left, it’s about peaking at the right time,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “It’s about getting momentum through wins and through solid performances and getting shutouts and making sure you’re solid defensively and making sure your attacking players are creating chances. We won 3-0 and I thought Bill Hamid made five or six ridiculous saves to keep them in the game so you have to say it’s not an unbelievable performance. We’ve had better performances this year. It certainly was a step in the right direction heading towards the playoffs.”

[RELATED: Arturo Alvarez takes advantage of first start since July]

With all the absences (de Leeuw due to yellow card accumulation and the other three due to injury), the starting lineup more closely resembled something the Fire would have sent out a year ago, plus Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic. Even if D.C. is last in the Eastern Conference, this was not the game to expect the Fire to dominate. D.C. entered having won three out of four after summer August additions boosted the team.

“Maybe the (score) says more than actually happened because I think they pushed us very hard,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “The first 15 minutes was very tough for us. The first 15 minutes of the second half also. I think they had better opportunities in these moments, but also it was a great moment for our team.”

Despite admitting D.C. had dominant stretches of the match, United finished with 57 percent possession and 66 percent in the second half, Paunovic thought Saturday’s showing was a sign that the Fire may be returning to its best form.

“We were today what we were looking for the whole season,” Paunovic said. “I think we managed very well the game. From this basis I would say that, yes, Chicago Fire with the performance in attack was finally the Chicago Fire that we were used to seeing this year. A little bit different. The approach obviously was different.”

The key for the Fire going forward is what the team will look like once Schweinsteiger et al return. Three of the last five games are on the road and the team remains in third place.

“We’re starting to pick up positive results again,” McCarty said. “That’s encouraging. We went through a rough patch where even though we played some good games and we played well, we weren’t getting results. Playing well without getting results means nothing to be honest. Right now we’re getting good results and we’re probably playing a little bit more pragmatic than we have in the past.”