Fire gear up for playoffs, Dynamo

928033.png

Fire gear up for playoffs, Dynamo

The Fire goes into its first Major League Soccer playoff match since 2009 on Wednesday lacking momentum and postseason experience. Maybe that matters, maybe not.

For most of the 34-match regular season the Fire (17-11-6) was a feel-good, uplifting story. In the last five matches, though, the Fire was 1-3-1 and lost to two clubs (Philadelphia and New England) that had long been eliminated from playoff contention. In its last match, with a chance to claim second place in the Eastern Conference with a win before a sellout home crowd, the Fire scored first but settled for a 1-1 draw against D.C. United.

As far as postseason experience goes, the team doesnt have much. Only eight Fire players have played in an MLS playoff match, and only four did it with the Fire. Chris Rolfe played in 14, captain Logan Pause 13, Gonzalo Segares 12 and Patrick Nyarko four. They will add to their numbers on Wednesday when they take on the Houston Dynamo (14-9-11 in the regular season) at Toyota Park at 8 p.m.

The Dynamo is long on playoff experience, with most of the team that went to last years MLS Cup still on the roster. Houston has also won twice as many MLS Cups (two, in 2006 and 2007) than the Fire (one, in its inaugural campaign of 1998). The Dynamo lost last years championship match 1-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

While Houston finished four points behind the Fire in fifth place, the Dynamo season included a run to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The Fire lost its lone U.S. Open Cup, the clubs lone tournament appearance of 2012.

Still, the Fire has some things going in what MLS has dubbed the Knockout Round of its current playoff format. For one, there's familiarity with the opponent.

Its crazy in this league, said Fire Defender-of-the-Year Arne Friedrich, who starred in Germany before coming here. Weve played Vancouver once. Well be playing Houston for the fourth time. This is MLS. Welcome to America.

Not only has the Fire played the Dynamo three times already this season, the Fire won the season series.

The first match was the strangest of the campaign for both clubs. It didnt last the full 90 minutes. Officials called it a 1-1 draw after 66 minutes because of severe weather at Toyota Park on April 15. The teams were scoreless on July 3 at BBVA Compass Stadium, and goals by Nyarko, Daniel Paladini and Alex gave the Fire a 3-1 victory in Bridgeview on Sept. 2.

The Fire has also been solid at home (11-3-3), despite the unimpressive finish to the regular season, and has a good track record (6-3-2) in the first round of its playoff matches over the years. Though the Fire missed postseason play in 2010 and 2011, the Fire is in the playoffs for the 12th time in 15 seasons by far the best success rate of Chicagos major pro teams.

The Bulls and Blackhawks made it in 10 of their first 15 campaigns, the Bears eight, the Cubs four and the Sox two. In the last 15 seasons the Bulls had eight playoff appearances, the Blackhawks and Cubs five, the Bears four and the Sox three. An interesting statistical tidbit, if nothing else.

Wednesdays match will be the Fires first-ever on Halloween and its first postseason meeting against Houston. The Dynamo is led by forward Will Bruin, who has 17 goals in his first two MLS seasons with 12 of them coming this season. Houstons most dangerous player, though, is midfielder Brad Davis. His 12 assists are twice as many as any of his teammates, and he also had eight regular-season goals. Midfielder Ricardo Clark will be marking his eighth season on an MLS playoff qualifier.

The teams made one big trade, on March 23, 2011, that helped both clubs. The Fire acquired speedy Dominic Oduro for injury-plagued striker Calen Carr. Both performed well for their new teams the last two seasons, though neither are starters now.

More than anything, the Fire has to shake off the disappointing draw with D.C. United, which deprived the club of a weeks rest before starting its playoff run.

It was disappointing, and it stinks, said Nyarko. But its just one extra game, and its good that its at home.

If the Fire does win on Wednesday the next step in the playoffs will be even more difficult a two-game home-and-home semifinal series against Eastern Conference regular season champion Sporting Kansas City. That round would begin on Sunday at Toyota Park if the Fire can get by the Dynamo.

2012 MLS playoffs Predicitions

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Knockout Round -- FIRE over Houston; Semifinals Sporting Kansas City over FIRE, D.C. United over New York. Conference Final Sporting Kansas City over D.C. United.

WESTERN CONFERENCE: Knockout Round Vancouver over Los Angeles; Semifinals San Jose over Vancouver, Seattle over Real Salt Lake. Conference Final San Jose over Seattle.

MLS CUP: San Jose over Sporting Kansas City.

Fire draft two Charlotte 49ers to close out draft

bronico-117.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire draft two Charlotte 49ers to close out draft

The Chicago Fire drafted three players in the first two rounds of the MLS draft on Friday and added another two players in the draft's final two rounds on Tuesday.

The Fire selected two players out of Charlotte in the final two rounds. Midfielder Brandt Bronico went with the third pick in the third round, No. 47 overall, and defender Matej Dekovic was picked with the third pick in the fourth round, No. 69 overall.

Bronico was a key cog all four years at Charlotte. He was a three-time First-Team Conference USA selection and Conference USA Player of the Year as a senior. He totaled 25 goals and 23 assists in four years, including nine goals and five assists in 18 matches as a senior. He had eight goals and 10 assists as a junior.

Bronico also scored an eye-catching goal on the final day of the MLS Combine.

Dekovic is a defender born in Zagreb, Croatia. He was a First-Team Conference USA pick this fall while playing at left back. The Fire don't have much depth currently at outside back, but Dekovic's status as an international player will give him an uphill battle to make the team.

The Fire open preseason camp in six days on Monday, Jan. 23.

Fire trade for midfielder Dax McCarty

mccarty-116.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire trade for midfielder Dax McCarty

Midfield has been an area of focus this offseason for Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez and another new addition to that group was added on Monday.

The Fire have traded $400,000 in general allocation money in return for midfielder Dax McCarty from the New York Red Bulls. Paul Tenorio of Four Four Two first reported the trade.

McCarty was an All-Star in 2015 and part of the league's Best XI that season when he had eight assists to go with a goal. Last season he made 26 starts for the Red Bulls and totaled three goals and had five assists.

"Since the middle of 2016, we made acquiring Dax our No. 1 priority," Rodríguez said in the club's press release. "We believe adding his character and leadership in the locker room, as well as his exceptional soccer abilities on the field, dramatically improves our team."

The last time McCarty played at Toyota Park was a 2-2 draw on July 31 when a Khaly Thiam tackle caused a fractured tibia, which forced McCarty to sit out a month.

McCarty got married on Saturday, which delayed his arrival to the current U.S. national team camp. McCarty's participation in national team camp means he will join the Fire's preseason already in progress. The final match of the camp is on Feb. 3 while the Fire are set to start preseason on January 23.

McCarty, 29, has spent the past five and a half seasons with the Red Bulls. He began his career by playing five seasons for FC Dallas and was with D.C. United for part of the 2011 campaign before being traded to the Red Bulls. As an 11-year league veteran and the Red Bulls' captain, McCarty adds leadership and experience which Rodriguez has prioritized this offseason.

The Fire already added a former MLS All-Star in midfield this offseason in Juninho. The pair could line up next to each other in the preferred 4-2-3-1 coach Veljko Paunovic used for most of last season. This also could potentially put Matt Polster's role with the team in question. As the roster stands now, the third-year midfielder would be competing for two veteran All-Star caliber midfielders who were brought in at a high price.

Not to suggest a position move is in the works for Polster, but he did split time between midfield and right back with the Fire in 2015 under coach Frank Yallop and played there for the U-23 national team in Olympic qualifying. Right back remains a position of need by Rodriguez's own admission.

The trade also adds further context to the Fire trading the No. 3 pick in the draft on Friday. The Fire swapped the pick for $250,000 in general allocation money from New York City FC and Tenorio is reporting the Fire will send $400,000 to the Red Bulls for McCarty. To add those two moves together, the Fire dealt the No. 3 overall pick and $150,000 of allocation money for McCarty.