Right now it’s the calm before the storm for the Chicago Fire.
The Fire were off this weekend and will return against D.C. United on April 30. That match will conclude a stretch in which five of the first seven games of 2016 took place at Toyota Park.
Then the Fire will have to sit through another off weekend. The weird part in the schedule is that two off weekends out of three are followed by a stretch of four matches in 11 days.
Wednesday matches at Vancouver and the New York Red Bulls sandwich a Saturday, May 14, match in New England. Three road games against three 2015 playoff teams will be tough for the Fire, and shows how important it was for the club to rack up points from this early season stretch. A home match against Houston on May 21 caps off four matches in four different cities and three different time zones, in 11 days. Going from playing one match in the span of 24 days to playing four in 11 is a tough transition that came about through a weird quirk in the MLS schedule.
As much as the current lull gives coach Veljko Paunovic extra time in practice, the team had multiple two-a-days this past week, the crowded batch of games looming will test the team’s depth.
“It’s a great opportunity to increase load,” Paunovic said of the off week on Tuesday. “Also we believe we have to do more of the full field games and more situations from the game where all those pieces that we are talking about we have to put them all together and work on the field in details and how we want to play and manage this next game.”
Paunovic had the team play a full field intrasquad scrimmage on Friday at UIC. It was red vs. white and the red team won 2-1. The red team got goals from John Goossens and Gilberto, on a penalty kick, while Razvan Cocis scored on an assist from Arturo Alvarez for the white team.
Team Red for today's #cf97 scrimmage: Johnson; Ramos, Kappelhof, Campbell, Vincent; Polster, Stephens; Morrell, Goossens, Calistri; Gilberto— Scott Hammer (@Scott_Hammer_) April 22, 2016
Team White: Lampson; Gehrig, Pineda (Acad.), Meira, Harrington; Cocis, LaBrocca; Alvarez, Perez (Acad.), Fernandez; Igboananike #cf97— Scott Hammer (@Scott_Hammer_) April 22, 2016
Analyzing the lineups for an intrasquad scrimmage is difficult, but there are a few things worth mentioning. First, that’s Eric Gehrig playing right back. Joao Meira and Academy player Mauricio Pineda, one of the Academy's top prospects, paired at center back and Gehrig, on his way back from injury, played on the right.
Also, Sean Johnson’s return to goal is notable, even if he hasn’t played yet in 2016. Johnson had not been able to train with the goalkeepers for a couple weeks, instead playing as a field player, due to a wrist injury. Matt Lampson has been the starter all year while Patrick McLain started on Saturday for St. Louis FC to get him some game action.
While the games aren’t coming often now, Paunovic will have to rotate the lineup during that busy stretch in May. Players like Gehrig and Brandon Vincent, who played next to three other defenders in that scrimmage who have become regular starters, will likely be called upon for bigger roles than they have recently. That stretch in the Fire’s schedule will be tough for the team to get results, but it should also be a great opportunity to learn a lot more about the team.