Chicago Fire

Fire start busy stretch with a long injury list

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Fire start busy stretch with a long injury list

Right before starting a stretch of three matches in eight days is not a good time to have a rash of injuries and illness.

The Chicago Fire start that stretch Saturday in Columbus, which will be aired on CSN+ with coverage starting at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live (channel finder). On top of longer-term injuries to Brandon Vincent (still out with a quad injury) and Daniel Johnson (left MCL sprain), Arturo Alvarez (lower back), Juninho (left knee), Johan Kappelhof (groin), Dax McCarty (illness) and Michael Harrington (illness) are all listed as questionable.

Alvarez wasn’t on the bench in Kansas City two weeks ago. He was on the list of available substitutes last week against New England, but didn’t play. Alvarez was in training this week.

Juninho and Kappelhof both left practice early on Wednesday after picking up those injuries. After practice that day, coach Veljko Paunovic said he expects those players to be available in Columbus.

McCarty and Harrington were kept away from the team Wednesday after being sick.

“Obviously these guys need some adjustments in their workload,” Paunovic said on Wednesday. “We are aware of where we are right now in the season. Late in the season we have to start working on more individualized program for every player and depending on how they feel in everyday communication and chats with them before training, we determine how we’re going to proceed with each one of them.”

The good news for the Fire on the injury front is that Vincent and John Goossens, who has been out since suffering an ankle injury in the season opener at Columbus, were on the practice field getting workouts in while the team trained. That means those two are nearing returns, although neither are imminent.

Columbus has its own injury issues. Right back Harrison Afful (thigh) and playmaking midfielder Federico Higuain (knee) are both listed as questionable. Columbus Dispatch reporter Andrew Erickson had the latest on the status of Afful and Higuain.

Columbus has been busy in the past week by signing winger Pedro Santos from Portuguese club SC Braga and trading long-time winger Ethan Finlay to Minnesota. Santos is not expected to be available for Saturday’s game.

This will be the third of three meetings between the Fire and the Crew. The season began with a 1-1 draw in Ohio. Just over a month later the Fire picked up a 1-0 win at Toyota Park.

“I expect their same style,” Fire defender Jonathan Campbell said. “I don’t know the formation. I know they switched that some in the back with how many people they’re going with, but they’re at home, I expect them to play out of the back. Kind of the same thing as every time before.”

After playing in Columbus, the Fire play in Montreal on Wednesday and host Toronto in a big Eastern Conference clash three days after that.

The Fire are coming off a ninth straight home win, but have lost two straight on the road. Many teams in the league have drastically different records at home and on the road. The Fire are no exception.

“I think if you figure that out, you could be a pretty good coach,” Campbell said with a laugh. “I’m not quite sure. I think travel might have to do a decent amount with it. Playing in front of the fans has a huge impact, but I think just teams aren’t able to play their style consistently for 90 minutes where at home they’re used to the field, the conditions, the routine. So I just don’t think teams are able to do that consistently for 90 minutes. They might try to do that for the first half, but the second half you kind of get tired and start sitting back more and then it wears down.”

Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew

Where: Mapfre Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. (Fire Pregame Live)

Records: Fire (12-5-5, 41 points), Crew (10-12-2, 32 points)

The Fire's injury list isn't pretty ahead of big game against Toronto

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USA TODAY

The Fire's injury list isn't pretty ahead of big game against Toronto

There has been plenty of buildup and hype for Saturday’s game between the Chicago Fire and Toronto FC.

That's because these teams had been the top two in the MLS standings for much of the season. However, a recent slump by the Fire (12-7-5, 41 points), four losses in the last five matches, and a slew of injuries to the Fire’s back line may have taken some of the sheen off the match.

It’s still a big one with the Fire already saying the game is sold out. Toronto (13-3-8, 47 points) enters with the best record in the league and some separation in that area as well.

The game will be televised live on CSN with coverage starting at 6:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live. A Spanish language broadcast of the match will also be live on CSN+.

After the Fire lost at Montreal on Wednesday, coach Veljko Paunovic said the game against Toronto was “probably the match of the season.” That’s true in that if the Fire fail to win, it probably realistically ends the team’s chase for the Supporters’ Shield. However, Toronto will remain in the lead and the favorite no matter what happens so perhaps the Fire’s priority should be simply securing the second spot in the Eastern Conference and with it a first-round playoff bye. The Fire are two points behind New York City FC (13-7-4, 43 points) for second place.

Given the hype around the match, it’s not good timing for the Fire that three regular starting defenders will be out for the match. Brandon Vincent will be out for a sixth straight game with a quad injury. Matt Polster will miss a second straight with a left knee injury. Joao Meira, who left five minutes into Wednesday’s game with a calf injury, is also out. In addition, winger David Accam is listed as questionable with a right hip injury.

Those absences could have a drastic impact on the Fire’s lineup against Toronto. In Montreal, Paunovic elected to move Johan Kappelhof, the only healthy regular starting defender, from center back to right back. With Meira now out, Paunovic may keep Kappelhof in the center and bring Drew Conner in at right back. Conner has started three games this season, all three at right back.

It goes without saying that taking on the only team in the league that has scored more goals than the Fire with a severely shorthanded defense is not ideal for the Fire. Sebastian Giovinco (11 goals, 6 assists), Jozy Altidore (9 goals, 5 assists) and Victor Vazquez (5 goals, 10 assists) all have had strong seasons for TFC.

In midfield, it will be interesting to see how it plays out with Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger going up against Toronto’s Michael Bradley.

The Fire enter with a club-record nine straight home wins, but none of those were as tough on paper as this one appears to be.

Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN (Spanish language broadcast on CSN+)

When: Coverage begins Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (12-7-5, 41 points), Toronto (13-3-8, 47 points)

Notes from the rewatch: Have the Fire been figured out?

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: Have the Fire been figured out?

it's easy to blame injuries for the Chicago Fire's recent slide. It might even be justifiable.

However, a theme has begun to emerge in the team's recent defeats beyond the fact that they've all been on the road. It started when Orlando was able to hold off the Fire despite only playing with nine men in Florida back on June 4. It continued when FC Cincinnati shut out the Fire and won in penalties in the U.S. Open Cup. New York City FC pulled off a win despite playing down a man for a majority of the game.

It seems the problems that burned the Fire in the middle part of the season have cropped up more frequently as teams have evolved the tactics to bother them. MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle had his own take on the Fire's recent struggles:

Given that the Fire are going to win possession in most games as long as Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger are playing, teams have put less emphasis on trying to win the midfield battle and more emphasis on limiting the ways the Fire can hurt them. Before Wednesday's 4-1 loss at Montreal, a team built to play on the counter, the 3-1 loss in Columbus came as a result of turnovers and counters from the Crew. The Crew typically emphasize possession, but conceded it to the Fire and burned them on the break. Montreal did the same.

Here's a look at how the Fire's makeshift defense coped with Montreal's attack and where on earth Nemanja Nikolic has gone to.

New-look back line

There may not have been a good solution to being so shorthanded defensively, but it didn't look like Veljko Paunovic found one. With Brandon Vincent already out, Matt Polster going down a day before the game and Joao Meira going down with an injury five minutes into the game, it was an emergency situation for the defenders.

Johan Kappelhof slid to right back and Jonathan Campbell stepped into the starting lineup at center back. That meant when Christian Dean subbed in for Meira, none of the Fire's regular defenders were in their regular positions. Kappelhof was the only regular starter and he was playing at a different spot. That's basically a disaster scenario for Dean, who joined the Fire officially a week before the game. He stepped into a game five minutes after he started when he wasn't expecting to play that early and did so when the rest of the Fire's defense was out of sorts as well.

So naturally, Dean's first touch as a Fire player led to a Montreal goal. His attempted clearance isn't really that bad. It wasn't a scuff or a whiff, but it wasn't clean. Ignacio Piatti was in position to take advantage of the lucky break when it bounced off his chest. That's not good for Dean's confidence, but he did have some positive moments to go with some shaky ones.

Dean was credited with eight ball recoveries, second most on the team to McCarty. He did get burned by Matteo Mancosu in a one-on-one situation in the 28th minute, but Matt Lampson came up with a big save. Dean finished with 65 out of 77 passes completed and showed he can use size well in aerial challenges and has decent speed. Him and Campbell both had trouble with Ignacio Piatti and Mancosu on the break. In short, Dean wasn't put in a spot to succeed given the circumstanecs, but showed both why he has potential and why he wasn't able to break in as a regular for Vancouver.

Djordje Mihailovic's first start

One of the things that has been brought up as the Fire's weaknesses continue to show themselves is that the team doesn't have an central attacking midfielder. Michael de Leeuw has occupied this role, but is more of a forward than a playmaker.

Mihailovic, 18, has flashed his talent in substitute appearances, but was given a chance to be the solution to the Fire's problems in Montreal. No pressure, kid.

The Fire's midfield is built around deep-lying midfielders in McCarty and Schweinsteiger and Mihailovic seemed to struggle to get involved. He drifted all over the field, but didn't really make his mark on the game. He was active in pressing Montreal when needed.

Mihailovic completed 16 of 18 passes in the first half, but only three of the completed passes were forward and none were near the box. This isn't the impact a player in that position is supposed to have on a game. In the second half he moved wide right and completed eight of 15 passes.

It wasn't a memorable first start, but the good news is Mihailovic didn't have any glaring mistakes on the ball. He has the talent. Getting experience like he did on Wednesday will help him be more assertive in the future.

Nemanja Nikolic's goal drought

Speaking of players having trouble getting involved in the game, Nemanja Nikolic has had his fair share of relative inactivity during his now six-game goal drought.

Nikolic had led the league in shots and goals, but has fallen off in both categories. David Villa is now two goals ahead of Nikolic for the league lead with 18. Villa (103) and Giovinco (97) have surpassed Nikolic in shots (80).

The Hungarian striker has started every MLS game for the Fire this year. In 12 of the first 18 matches he had multiple shots on target. In the last six matches he hasn't done that once, with a total of four shots on target in those six matches and none in the last two.

Even when the Fire scored four against New England two games ago, Nikolic wasn't a big factor in the match. So how much of that is Nikolic and how much of that is the Fire's recent slump?

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave his view on that topic on Tuesday.

 

"This is no secret, Nemanja does his best work in the box," Rodriguez said. "So one thing that has not been as consistent or as much quality is our delivery of the ball to Nemanja in and around the area. That is a phase of the game that we have definitely not recovered since the (Gold Cup) break. Now, having said that, our goal against Columbus, if Michael doesn’t score, Nemanja does. He’s making the same run, he’s right in position. I think that’s more incumbent upon how we’re playing and what we’re doing than it is Nemanja himself.

"We have to better support him in and around the box for him to regain his form.”

Nikolic had one shot. It was a difficult header from just inside the penalty box when he was tightly marked. It barely registered as a scoring chance. That was one of two touches Nikolic had in the box against Montreal.

Nikolic dropped into midfield at times and completed 15 of 17 passes for the match. Five of those passes were in his own half. He had just two touches after halftime until he was subbed out in the 63rd minute. The service wasn't there and Nikolic isn't the kind of forward to go on a long run to create a chance or score on his own.