New York City FC

The Fire have clinched a playoff spot, now the fun begins

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The Fire have clinched a playoff spot, now the fun begins

When Toronto FC came to Toyota Park on Aug. 19 there was a big game atmosphere that hadn’t existed in Bridgeview for years, and certainly hadn’t existed since Veljko Paunovic took over as coach in 2016.

That game had some hype behind it as a potentially huge game in the Supporters’ Shield race. By the time Toronto came to town, the Fire had fallen back, losing four of the previous five games. Toronto’s 3-1 win was a decisive blow to the Fire’s chances of catching Toronto and the Reds are now on the verge of clinching the Shield.

What was significant about that game was the tension in the air and the fact that the crowd knew it was a big game. Saturday’s game against New York City FC (live on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live) is another big game with New York holding the crucial second spot, and the first-round bye that comes with it, in the Eastern Conference.

Whether or not the players and coaches of the Fire would admit it, they were likely feeling some pressure as the team lost six of seven games in July and August and later lost at a Philadelphia team that has been out of the playoff race for weeks. After the Fire clinched a playoff spot on Wednesday with a resounding win in San Jose, the pressure should be relieved. Entering the season, most Fire fans would have been happy to take a playoff berth, meaning the minimum standard has been achieved.

That’s what Dax McCarty said after the San Jose win: “I think if you want to be a successful club in Major League Soccer, it should be the bare minimum expectation every season to make the playoffs.”

So with the bare minimum out of the way, now it gets to the good stuff. Saturday’s game against NYCFC is a truly big game, something the club hasn’t experienced many of in recent years. The Toronto game was an early taste of a big game (and it showed how much better Toronto is than the Fire). Now, this is a game between two teams already headed to the playoffs and in a race for playoff seeding.

The Fire are four points behind NYCFC with three games left. Atlanta is a point ahead of the Fire and has four games remaining. Any chance of getting a first-round bye starts with a Fire win on Saturday. If New York wins, they clinch a top three seed.

Beyond seeding, the Fire also need to show they can beat Eastern Conference playoff teams. With the six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference appearing all wrapped up (barring a collapse by the New York Red Bulls), the Fire have a 2-6-2 record against those teams and an 0-5-1 mark on the road.

David Accam was rested for this game, not making the trip to San Jose, and Bastian Schweinsteiger could return. The German has missed the last four games, but was not listed on the injury report. Rushing back Schweinsteiger without training time in the past couple weeks could have long-term damage, but could also give the team a much-needed boost with one of the best teams in the league going to Toyota Park.

Let’s see what the Fire can do in a big game before the truly big games start in late October.

Chicago Fire vs. New York City FC

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

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

Records: Fire (15-10-6, 51 points), NYCFC (16-8-7, 55 points)

Familiar problems for Fire in loss at New York City FC

Familiar problems for Fire in loss at New York City FC

A game which paired two of the top teams in the MLS standings didn’t deliver in a traditional sense, but did produce a wild game on Saturday.

The Chicago Fire looked like a team coming off a break in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at New York City FC. The Fire played up a man from the 12th minute on, but defensive lapses throughout and a lack of crispness in front of goal cost the Fire.

After a first half in which the Fire (11-4-5, 38 points) were outshot 7-4 despite the man advantage, NYCFC (11-6-4, 37 points) scored twice in the first five minutes of the second half and held off the Fire’s late surge.

For much of the match, the Fire struggled to complete passes and couldn’t even put shorthanded New York City under pressure. Once the Fire fell behind 2-0, David Accam, who entered the match as a halftime sub, got the Fire within one with a long-range effort that slammed in off the bottom off the crossbar.

The final 30 or so minutes resembled the Fire’s previous struggles this season of playing against teams defending deeply. The Fire couldn’t score against Orlando when the Lions were down two players on June 4. Later in June in the U.S. Open Cup, the Fire couldn’t score against USL opponent FC Cincinnati which defended deep the entire match.

NYCFC took the lead two minutes into the second half on a David Villa volley where Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson was screened on the shot. A few minutes later Frederic Brillant rebounded his own header on a set piece to double the lead.

Accam’s goal finished off a stretch of three goals in eight minutes, but the Fire couldn’t beat former goalkeeper Sean Johnson again despite 25 shots.

The loss snapped the Fire’s 11-match MLS unbeaten run and tightened up the Eastern Conference race. Toronto FC, which tied NYCFC in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, is up a point on the Fire. NYCFC is now a point behind the Fire with an extra game played.

Before the red card, the Fire caught a big break when a Bastian Schweinsteiger turnover nearly led to a penalty kick. Johan Kappelhof slid to knock the ball away from Herrera in the fourth minute, and appeared to miss the ball, but the ref did not give the penalty to the hosts.

Fire defender Brandon Vincent was announced as a starter before the match, but the club said he suffered a left quad strain in warmups and was replaced by Michael Harrington in the lineup.

Fire head to Yankee Stadium for big Eastern Conference clash

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Fire head to Yankee Stadium for big Eastern Conference clash

There’s no easing out of the break for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire return after having two and a half weeks between games to take on one of the top rivals in the Eastern Conference race. The Fire head to Yankee Stadium to take on New York City FC on Saturday.

The match will be televised on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

The Fire last played July 5 in Portland, taking time off while the Gold Cup group stage took place. Bastian Schweinsteiger missed that match with a hip injury that caused him to leave the previous match against Vancouver early, but he says he is ready to go in The Bronx.

“I was a little bit unlucky that I had this injury and I couldn’t play against Portland,” Schweinsteiger said. “If the game would be on a Saturday (three days after the match took place) I probably could play the game. The break was nice. It was good to recover. Not only for the body, but also for the head. Actually more for the head. I’m ready for the second part of the season. We have a good position in the standings, but it’s going to be more tough for us. I think other teams, they analyze us as well now. They play maybe in a different style against us so we have to find solutions and prepare ourselves.”

The Fire return from the break with a mostly clean bill of health. Defender Jonathan Campbell is listed as questionable with a right ankle injury.

New York City is in the middle of a crucial stretch for the race at the top of the conference. Toronto FC, which currently leads the league with 39 points, just earned a 2-2 draw in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. NYCFC is four points behind the Fire (11-3-5, 38 points) with a 10-6-4 record (34 points).

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic always hypes up the upcoming match, but wasn’t shy to speak of the extra importance of Saturday’s clash of playoff contenders.

“It’s everything, this game is everything,” Paunovic said. “We are now in a good spot. We have time to prepare. We have time to see them, but also we have to know that we have to work.”

Schweinsteiger called NYCFC one of the best teams in the league, along with Toronto. He also praised the style the team plays with under coach Patrick Vieira.

“I really appreciate how they play and how they behave also on the pitch,” Schweinsteiger said. “It’s going to be not an easy match for us away, but we are confident. We are confident. We are trying to find solutions to prepare ourselves during the week for that game and I’m very looking forward to play in Yankee Stadium. It’s a little bit different, it looks a little bit different when I saw it on TV, but I’m looking forward to this match.”

When set up for soccer, Yankee Stadium features a small field. The tight dimensions could make it tougher for the Fire’s preferred style of building out of the back with possession.

“You have to prepare for that,” Schweinsteiger said. “The pitch is smaller than, for example, let’s say I played in Barcelona in Nou Camp. It’s a huge field over there so it’s different. We have to know that and obviously we have to focus of course on our game, but also on the other team. They have David Villa, one of the best players in the league.”

Villa, who was voted into the All-Star Game as part of the Fan XI alongside Schweinsteiger and Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic, is second to Nikolic with 13 goals and also has seven assists.

Chicago Fire at New York City FC

Where: Yankee Stadium, New York

TV: CSN+

When: Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (11-3-5, 38 points), NYCFC (10-6-4, 34 points)