Fire remain positive despite playoff loss

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Fire remain positive despite playoff loss

By Jeremy Mikula
CSNChicago.com contributor

Despite being eliminated in the Knockout Round of the Eastern Conference playoffs Wednesday, the Chicago Fire remain positive about their season.

"Hundred percent," striker Chris Rolfe told CSNChicago.com when asked if the season was considered a success for the club. "17 wins is unheard of since I've been here. The guys have a lot to be proud of; the coaching staff has done such a great job. Right now it's hard to say and look back at the way it went, but when we've kind of calmed down and take a look back, well see how special a year it was."

The Fire qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and amassed a 17-11-6 season -- good for fourth place in the East with 57 points. However, the season would come to end Wednesday night at the hands of the Houston Dynamo, who came into Toyota Park and walked away with a 2-1 win.

For captain Logan Pause, the loss should serve as a building exercise for a team largely devoid of MLS playoff experience.

"The big thing is for the guys to know and understand the feel," Pause said. "First of all for what it takes to get here, which is one element, and then the feeling of getting knocked out, which is one we don't want to feel."

"It's a hard one to swallow right now," Pause added. "But I'm proud of where this group has come over the last year. I don't think anyone thought much of us at the beginning of the year, missing the playoffs two years in a row. There are elements where it was a success, but we're in the business where we want and need to win championships."

The Fire fell behind in the 13th minute when Will Bruin scored his first of the night on a Brad Davis corner. Seconds into the second half, Bruin completed his brace when he slotted home in the 46th minute past Sean Johnson.

Chicago managed to pull one back through second half substitute Alex, who replaced Pause at the interval. Alex's 83rd minute goal put the Fire within touching distance, but ultimately Houston held on to setup a showdown with Sporting KC on Sunday.

One highlight for the Fire in the match was veteran German centerback Arne Friedrich, who put in a performance at both ends of the pitch.

"Unfortunately it was not enough," Friedrich said of a performance that saw him both defending and leading attacks. "We were down, I saw some opportunities so I wanted to push. It's really sad because we played a really good season. But this is soccer."

Friedrich joined the Fire in the offseason after cancelling out of his contract with Bundesliga side VFL Wolfsburg. Despite playing in two World Cups and a European Final with Germany, and numerous seasons in the Bundesliga, a championship has eluded him.

"There was a great chance this season, but I guess we were a little lazy," said Friedrich, who hopes to extend his one-year contract with the Fire. "We could have won some winnable games against Philadelphia at home and at New England. But we have to learn from that. The team has a good spirit, a good character, and everybody can learn from this season and the mistakes we made."

Although by no means a rookie, Friedrich is nonetheless a rookie when it comes a postseason that determines a league champion. In most soccer leagues, the team at the top of the table by seasons end is crowned the champion.

"It's cool, I like," Friedrich said of the new experience. "We'll see at the end who wins, but for teams like Kansas City or San Jose its really hard because one game and they could be out. But for teams like Houston who finished in the fifth position, everything is possible, so I like this."

With the season now over for the Fire, the team has indicated a return to the postseason in 2013 is a goal.

"The most important thing for us is winning an MLS Cup," said Rolfe, the team's MVP and Golden Boot winner."It's going to be the same thing next year, just keep pushing ourselves and try to get further than we did this year."

Fire Talk Podcast Episode 4: The Fire have Bastian Schweinsteiger

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AP

Fire Talk Podcast Episode 4: The Fire have Bastian Schweinsteiger

Bastian Schweinsteiger has signed with the Chicago Fire, which means there's plenty to talk about in Fire land.

Dan Santaromita and Shane Murray (MLSsoccer.com) break down the big move in the fourth episode of the Fire Talk Podcast. They look at what his impact will be on and off the field, how much he can improve the team and how the team may line up with him.

Next, hear Dan's interview with coach Veljko Paunovic about Schweinsteiger's addition to the team.

Finally, Dan and Shane look back on the Fire's 4-0 loss in Atlanta, preview the upcoming home match against Montreal and answer some fan questions to wrap up the show.

The podcast is available on iTunes and the Podcasts app on iOS. Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

How does Bastian Schweinsteiger fit into the Fire's lineup?

How does Bastian Schweinsteiger fit into the Fire's lineup?

The dust has begun to settle from the Chicago Fire's signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger.

A few days after the announcement, everyone has had a chance to process the move, evaluate it and wonder how it will help the team. The big question that remains is how will Schweinsteiger fit in with this group?

While central midfield had been a problem for the Fire last year, the additions of Dax McCarty and Juninho, both former MLS All-Stars who are currently still in their prime, seemed to have filled the hole. Now Schweinsteiger comes in and the Fire have a glut of central midfielders.

When asked about finding a way to get all three on the field, coach Veljko Paunovic said it's not a concern at all.

"We were thinking about that a long time ago," Paunovic said. "We were preparing him and other guys to play together. We know what we are doing."

Paunovic wouldn't give much away about how the three would play together in midfield or what specific role Schweinsteiger would play. Will he be an attacking midfielder? Will he sit deep and have one of McCarty and Juninho move up?

"He's going to play the role of the midfielder," Paunovic said. "The midfielder has to play different roles depending on the situation so it's a proven player and I don't think that there is a question about his qualities and what he can bring to our team. For sure he can play, helping our team to build the attack, to help the organization of the play and then in the final third we all know that he can produce passes in the final third and score goals."

While Paunovic wouldn't give any hints as to how Schweinsteiger fits into the Fire's midfield, general manager Nelson Rodriguez did. Sort of.

"There's a current trend that the only way to be a successful No. 10 is to go to Argentina, find a No. 10 fairy tree... and that's the only way that you can have a 10,” Rodriguez said. "I'm not saying that Pauno is going to play him in the 10 role, that will be Pauno's decision. But there's a lot of different types of playmakers that can impact a game."

That answer implies that maybe the Rodriguez and Paunovic view Schweinsteiger as an attacking midfielder in MLS. Even though Rodriguez volunteered the concept of Schweinsteiger of a playmaking No. 10 without being asked about that role, he wouldn't commit to it.

"Pauno and I clearly have had discussions and we were comfortable with it in that regard," Rodriguez said of Schweinsteiger's fit. "I'm loathe to say No. 10 or otherwise again because I think those conjure up preconceived notions and I would also point out that Bastian played in attacking midfield role for Bayern in some of his last years there to great effect. We're talking about a player whose versatility, his intelligence through his dominance of the ball allows him to play a lot of different roles. I think that we all tend to fall into traps and want to define players in a very small way. Some players can transcend those definitions by virtue of their versatility. I think Bastian is one of those guys."

So if Rodriguez and Paunovic won't give much away yet, let's have fun speculating as to how the Fire may line up with the German in the fold.

For starters, there are some basic, reasonable assumptions you have to make when coming up with how things could fit together. These assumptions largely dictate the options available.

Neither Juninho nor Dax McCarty are going to the bench.

The simplest lineup solution would involve having Schweinsteiger step into his natural position and no one moving out of their natural spot. However, that's not going to happen because Juninho and McCarty are too good and too important to send to the bench. That's why this isn't simple. Finding a way to fit three central midfielders into the same starting lineup will require some creativity from Paunovic.

Nemanja Nikolic, David Accam and Michael de Leeuw all must start.

Like Schweinsteiger, Nikolic and Accam are designated players and will start when healthy. Hypthetically, the Fire could have Schweinsteiger come in as an extra midfielder in some sort of 4-5-1 (or 4-3-3) formation and have the Fire play with only one forward, which would be Nikolic. The problem with this is de Leeuw, who was arguably the team's best player after debuting last August, is too good to send to the bench. In this scenario he is left without a spot. Does he move into a wide position to accommodate Schweinsteiger and send Arturo Alvarez to the bench? This seems plausible, but less than ideal for de Leeuw, who has proven to be an effective goal poacher.

Given Rodriguez's quotes about Schweinsteiger being a playmaker, here are a couple ways this could work with him as the highest of the three central midfielders.

First, a 4-2-3-1, which Paunovic has used for most of his matches with the Fire. Schweinsteiger has more offensive responsibility here.

Second, a more traditional 4-3-3 where Vincent and Harrington will have to provide more attacking width.

The differences between these two are subtle, but these seem to be the most likely possibilities.

But what about something very different? What about a 3-5-2? Paunovic tried this formation a few times last season, but often times it looked more like a very defensive 5-3-2 because, as he even said, the wide defenders weren't getting forward enough. Different personnel could change that. Behold:

The benefits to this are that the Fire's best offensive players are all on the field at the same time in their natural positions and Schweinsteiger won't be asked to cover a lot of ground with Juninho and McCarty playing behind him centrally.

However, there's always risk going with a three-man back line. McCarty and Juninho can provide better cover and support than the Fire had last year when trying this formation. Another option would be to have Brandon Vincent replace Alvarez to have a more defensive-minded player on the field.

The answer won't come until Schweinsteiger makes his first start in a Fire uniform, and even then Paunovic may tinker or change his mind.

"I would just say I don't think people should make an assumption as to how we're going to line up or play or what roles we're going to fill," Rodriguez said. "I think that we have to allow this team to come together. We have to allow this team to play together. We have to allow competition to change to determine who plays."