Fire's preseason finale shows potential season-opening starting lineup

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USA TODAY

Fire's preseason finale shows potential season-opening starting lineup

While most MLS teams were beginning the 2018 season on Saturday, the Fire finished off the preseason with a game against USL affiliate Tulsa which provided a sneak peek at what the 2018 Fire will look like.

Preseason results are meaningless, especially when against a minor league team, but the starting lineup that coach Veljko Paunovic sent out in front of a crowd of hardcore fans at Toyota Park could be the same 11 that start against Sporting Kansas City in next week’s season opener.

There were few surprises in the back, although injuries have limited the options. Stefan Cleveland got the start in goal while Richard Sanchez, the presumed starter, is dealing with a hand injury. The back four was Brandon Vincent, Christian Dean, Johan Kappelhof and Matt Polster. Dean was in the only spot that wasn’t certain going into camp, but he will get the job by default in Week 1 due to injuries to Jonathan Campbell, who still had bruising around his right eye after suffering a facial fracture earlier in the preseason, and Grant Lillard, who has a knee injury and did not play Saturday.

The midfield is where things get interesting. Luis Solignac and Daniel Johnson were both out of action, which left few attacking options to support striker Nemanja Nikolic. Newly acquired Tony Tchani played next to Dax McCarty in the deep central midfield roles while Bastian Schweinsteiger played higher up the field with rookie Jon Bakero and offseason addition Aleksandar Katai playing in wide attacking roles.

Tchani was traded to the Fire on Wednesday and joined the team Thursday. His addition provides more flexibility in the Fire’s midfield and allows Schweinsteiger to play in a more advanced role while not entirely stripping the team’s central midfield depth (rookie Mo Adams can still come off the bench in this lineup).

Schweinsteiger has played in a more attacking role with the Fire, mostly early in his stint with the team last year, but that’s not his usual position. However, a lack of playmaking options elsewhere on the roster may necessitate this move.

“Basti obviously he knows the game perfectly,” Paunovic said after the game. “He knows where to find the rights spots and gaps in between the lines to organize, to be the open man and then to bring the ball to the opponent’s end. That’s the free role that he almost always played for us. Sometimes more specific against some opponents. We will look always to take advantage of all the qualities he brings on the field. As I said, playing as a No. 10, No. 8 in some moments or even as a six. So for sure we will rotate these roles.”

So while general manager Nelson Rodriguez continues to search for a No. 10, Schweinsteiger may be the team’s playmaker in the meantime.

Bakero struggled to assert himself for much of the preseason, but showed flashes of the technical ability that made him the Hermann Trophy award winner this past college season. Him and Katai swapped on the wings frequently and Katai dropped deeper into the midfield than David Accam, the player he is most directly replacing. Katai doesn’t have top line speed, but will be more fluid in the Fire’s attack. He also took corner kicks from the right side and could be a much-needed option to take set pieces after the Fire failed to score from a dead ball situation last year.

The returns of Solignac and Johnson could change things and possibly push Bakero to the bench, but they may not be ready to play starting minutes by Saturday.

“They’re kind of in the last phase of the recovery so we expect them, at least one of them to be back,” Paunovic said. “But we still cannot say. We have to see in the next couple days how they improve and if they can start on Tuesday with the rest of the group.”

Oh, by the way, the Fire won 2-1 with second-half goals from Nikolic and rookie Elliot Collier after falling behind on a passing mistake by Cleveland in goal gave Tulsa a 1-0 lead in the first half.

Fire 'missing pieces on and off the field' with season less than two weeks away

Fire 'missing pieces on and off the field' with season less than two weeks away

While most of MLS opens play this weekend, a schedule quirk gives the Chicago Fire an extra week to prepare for the March 10 season opener. Despite the season being so close both general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic are saying the roster is “incomplete.”

Sporting Kansas City comes to Toyota Park in 11 days, yet the words from the front office don’t exude confidence.

“We are missing some pieces on and off the field, but we are working towards that,” Paunovic said.

Rodriguez has previously mentioned the importance of getting a playmaker type, a No. 10 in soccer parlance, to boost the attack. The Fire lacked in that area in 2017 when teams bunkered in defensively and made the Fire attack from wide areas. Aleksandar Katai arrived from a club in Spain’s La Liga and can help in that area, but is more of a direct replacement for the departed David Accam.

“We’re still looking for a No. 10 and suggestions are welcome,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “Look, we’ve run through a long pipeline of players that we looked at and considered, and for whatever reasons those didn’t come through. So we rebuild our pipeline and keep looking, internally and externally.”

Rodriguez said, as he has previously this offseason, that they still want the team to “improve across all the lines” and are looking both within the league and outside of MLS for players.

“I can’t say that anything is imminent, but we’ll keep working until we get the group assembled that we think will be the best one to give us a chance at a championship,” Rodriguez said.

Beyond a playmaker, an extra goalkeeper remains a position of need simply based on numbers. The Fire want three under contract and have only two, Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland. Patrick McLain, who was the Fire’s No. 3 in 2016, was at training on Tuesday as a trialist. League veteran Alan Gordon is also trialing with the team and could be a backup to Nemanja Nikolic, last year’s MLS goal-scoring leader.

The defense could be mostly set, although injuries have affected that group in the preseason. Jonathan Campbell is out for six weeks after suffering a facial fracture against Nashville SC on Feb. 21, rookie Grant Lillard has been out with a left knee injury and Johan Kappelhof was limited in training on Tuesday dealing with a minor injury.

The combination of injuries and a front office saying the roster is incomplete 11 days away from the season has created anxiety within the fanbase, something Rodriguez is well aware of.

“It’s frustrating for fans that we haven’t had as many acquisitions as other teams, but I’m pleased that we remain disciplined in our process and our evaluation and we’re willing to walk away from some talent because we don’t think the values match or we’re willing to stick to our valuations of what players should cost,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not to be evasive of the timing, but it is to say when all those factors are right we’ll add players.”

The tone from the players was optimistic due to key players like Nikolic, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Kappelhof being back.

“It’s been I think fairly similar to last offseason in that there’s a lot of turnover, maybe more so this offseason, but I think the core has remained the same and that’s always positive,” McCarty said. “The key difference for me from last year to this year is the core group of leadership is the same and is pushing everyone to try to be better and to try to hold each other a little bit more accountable.”

Schweinsteiger again focused on the Fire’s game style, a phrase he used frequently in 2017.

“We had very many games where we played 45 minutes or 60 minutes on a high level,” he said. “My wish for this season is that we can play the games in 90 minutes on a high level (and) of course to qualify for the playoffs. That’s the most important for me first of all and then to be more competitive than maybe we were last year in the big matches against big teams.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.