Fire, players nominated for MLS awards

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Fire, players nominated for MLS awards

At least this is progress.

Last year the Fire had but one player chosen among the three finalists for the various postseason awards handed out in Major League Soccer. Dominic Oduro was among the trio in contention for Comeback Player-of-the-Year, but the award went to David Beckham of the Los Angeles Galaxy.

MLS announced its various award finalists for 2012 on Thursday, at about the same time Fire players were cleaning out their lockers at Toyota Park. As expected, defender Austin Berry was among the finalists for Rookie of the Year.

Captain Logan Pause was also mentioned for the Fair Play Award. The winner of it is selected by MLS, based on objective criteria such as fouls committed, cards received and games and minutes played as well as a subjective evaluation of sportsmanship behavior.

The Fire was also nominated for the Team Fair Play award, joining the Houston Dynamo and New England Revolution.

Frank Klopas, who merited consideration for Coach of the Year based on his teams improvement from a 9-9-16 record in 2011 to this years 17-11-6, was bypassed. The finalists among the coaches were Frank Yallop of San Jose, Peter Vermes of Sporting Kansas City and Ben Olsen of D.C. United.

At least the Fire wont have to wait long to find out if it has an MLS award winner for the first time since 2009. The first winners will be announced on Monday, and they are in the three categories that the Fire has finalists.

In the Fires last trip to the awards stand three years ago, the club won the Team Fair Play and Pause took Humanitarian-of-the-Year. His rivals for this years Fair Play honor are Ante Jazic of Chivas USA and Heath Pearce of New York.

Lens Picks

As previously mentioned here, Berry is my clear-cut choice for Rookie of the Year and Pause is as good as any for Fair Play. He didnt draw a card in 32 games this season.

My choices for the other MLS individual player awards are: Matt Besler, Sporting Kansas City, Defender; Kei Kamara, Sporting Kansas City, Humanitarian; Olsen, Coach; Eddie Johnson, Seattle, Comeback; Jimmy Nielsen, Sporting Kansas City, Goalkeeper; Michael Gspurning, Seattle, Newcomer; and Chris Wondolowski, San Jose, Most Valuable Player.

Illinois State Soccer Assn. Hall of Fame ceremony

While Fire players have scattered for the season Toyota Park will still be a busy place, especially on Sunday when the Illinois State Soccer Assn. holds its Hall of Fame banquet beginning at 4 p.m. Heading the list of this years inductees is Hank Steinbrecher, former head of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Also joining past honorees at the Toyota Park Hall of Fame exhibit are Frank Basan, Mary Jane Bender, Rey Carlberg, Tony Dallas, Charlie Dyson, Harold Hall, Robert Meschbach, Boris Pavichevich, Zygmunt Prudzienica, Hans Wissman, and Richard Znamierowski.

Five others will receive Meritorious Service awards: Edner Franck, Stanley Makowka, Karen ODowd, Harry Quidzinski (posthumously) and Jeff Stern.

Back from Tulsa, Joey Calistri returns to Fire with more confidence

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USA TODAY

Back from Tulsa, Joey Calistri returns to Fire with more confidence

While the Chicago Fire was having a breakout season in MLS, Joey Calistri was helping the Tulsa Roughnecks have a breakout season of their own in the USL.

Calistri, a homegrown midfielder from Deerfield who made 14 appearances as a rookie with the Fire last year, has been on loan with Tulsa since the start of the season and has helped the Roughnecks go from having the worst record in the league in 2016 to being in a playoff spot currently. Calistri made 16 appearances, 13 of which were starts, and totaled five goals and two assists.

The Fire recalled Calistri this week and he was back in training. The 23-year-old could be another attacking option off the bench for the Fire.

“I always knew that if I played well enough hopefully I would get a shot to come back, but they just called me up and said we’re flying you back so I didn’t ask so many questions,” Calistri said on Tuesday.

Calistri racked up 1,235 minutes, which is nearly four times the total he got with the Fire last season (348). He was a regular starter while primarily playing as an attacker on the right side.

“I was able to get consistent 90 minutes every week, which is huge for fitness, for confidence, for everything and getting a couple goals out there helps the confidence,” Calistri said.

The Northwestern product said rosters aren’t as deep in the USL, but praised the level of play overall. He noted that the intensity is high because the players are trying to earn a spot in MLS.

On top of getting a confidence boost and gaining experience, Calistri said he was trying to work on his play near the goal.

“The thing I wanted to improve was creating goals and creating chances for other guys,” Calistri said. “I think my distribution was something that got a lot better out there and I was able to calm down more in the final third, find the final pass and do a lot better with that.”

Now that he’s back with the Fire, Calistri is hoping to make a bigger impact than he did last year. Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez noted in May how important it was for Calistri to get more playing time.

“I think this extended playing time has been very good for him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s proven to be what he was in our academy and what he was at Northwestern, which is a guy who finds a way to score goals and menace defenses.”

Calistri doesn’t know what his role will be with the Fire this year. He said coach Veljko Paunovic hasn’t communicated any specifics yet. Calistri doesn’t even know if the Fire intend to keep him around all year or send him back to Tulsa at some point.

One thing he does know about the Fire is that the team is very different from a year ago. Calistri was able to watch every game the Fire played and noticed the changes within the team.

“The thing I noticed was how calm we were on the ball,” he said. “I think that was probably the biggest difference I noticed. When we knocked the ball around the back there was a purpose and there was an identity to who we were. We didn’t just pass the ball around because we didn’t have options. We did that to stretch the other team out and then from then we were able to find pockets and little spaces behind.”

As Calistri came back from loan, defender Patrick Doody went on loan to Saint Louis FC, the Fire's previous USL affiliate. Doody, another homegrown player, has played there on loan each of the past two years. Doody hasn’t made an appearance for the Fire since his rookie year in 2015.

Why the next two weeks are crucial in MLS' Eastern Conference race

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USA TODAY

Why the next two weeks are crucial in MLS' Eastern Conference race

As Major League Soccer teams return from the Gold Cup break this week, the Chicago Fire are tied for the best record in the league.

The Fire’s 11-3-5 record, good for 38 points, has virtually assured the team of a playoff spot with nearly half the season still to play. Sports Club Stats has MLS playoff odds, which give the Fire and Toronto FC both a 99.9 percent chance of making the postseason.

So if the Fire’s baseline goal of making the playoffs is a near certainty at this point, what’s next? The Fire will want to strive for a first-round bye by getting one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference. The Fire and Toronto are currently five points ahead of third-place New York City FC. Those two teams play tonight in The Bronx before the Fire head to Yankee Stadium to take on NYCFC on Saturday.

“We have to see how they play, obviously against Toronto, another direct opponent in our quest for the top of our conference,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said on Tuesday. “We’ll see how they do, how they’re going to play. We’ll see also what lineup they will play and that’s a good opportunity for us. We also know that that result is going to impact for sure their approach against us on Saturday.”

NYCFC could either fall out of the race or jump right into the thick of it in the next two weeks. Even after hosting both Toronto and the Fire in a four-day span, the David Villa-led team heads to Canada for another meeting with Toronto FC on July 30.

A look at the remaining schedule for the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings shows the Fire may have the toughest road ahead. The table below shows how many games each team has at home and away as well as total games vs. teams currently in playoff spots and away games against those current playoff teams.

  Home games Away games Playoff teams At playoff teams
Fire 7 8 7 5
Toronto 8 7 6 3
NYCFC 8 7 8 2

The Fire have one fewer home game than Toronto and New York, but the real difference is in those away playoff games. The Fire have five such contests remaining (at NYCFC, at West-leading Sporting Kansas City, at Columbus, at San Jose and the season finale at Houston) and are 0-2-3 in those games so far this year.

Toronto has trips to Yankee Stadium and Toyota Park still on its schedule, but only one other road game against a playoff team. That's in Atlanta, the team that sits in fourth in the conference. TFC's disadvantage is that the Reds will be without Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley presumably for both of the key meetings with NYCFC while those two are competing in the Gold Cup knockout stage.

New York has two meetings, both one home and away, against the Fire and Toronto. In addition, NYCFC hosts three of the Western Conference's best teams in Sporting KC, Portland and Houston in September. With ground to make up in the standings, David Villa and Co. will need to do well in those games against the Fire and Toronto to fight for a first-round playoff bye and perhaps a long-shot run at the Supporters' Shield.

Regardless of what lies further ahead, the next two weeks should go a long way to shaping the race at the top of the Eastern Conference when the final stretch of the season approaches.