Chicago Fire

Fire training camp report

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Fire training camp report

AVE MARIA, FL. So far, so good.

Five days into preseason training Fire coach Frank Klopas is pleased with what hes been seeing from a group of players that underwent little change from 2012.

"The changes we made were minimal, said Klopas, "and thats been good because we can get right down to work. Its been fun, and a lot of hard work from the guys.

In most previous seasons the Fire tweaked its roster with some foreign players. Not so this time. The main new acquisitions were off Major League Soccer rivals Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado), Joel Lindpere (New York) and Maicon Santos (D.C. United).

They werent consolation prizes. Klopas spent a month on the road in the offseason with stops in Spain, Holland, Belgium, Argentina and Costa Rica. Other staffers also went abroad in search of talent but felt players available via MLS were the best bet to improve a club that ended a two-year absence from the playoffs in 2012.

"We looked at guys, said Klopas. "Sometimes things dont work out, and sometimes you say I know what Im getting from guys in the league. We felt there was an opportunity to get proven guys in the league, and we took advantage of it.

Klopas has 33 players in camp at the small college town near Naples. Nineteen are rostered players. Ten are here as trialists and four were draft picks. Five are goalkeepers, with a spot open for a third netminder behind the rostered Sean Johnson and last seasons backup, Paolo Tornaghi.

Johnson is one of four players not in camp. Hes training with the U.S. national team in California in preparation for next weeks international friendly against Canada. Also absent are defender Arne Friedrich, who will join the team at the second phase of preseason training in Ventura, Calif., next month; Corben Bone, who is training with Spains Atletico Madrid; and Patrick Nyarko, who is expected here on Saturday after staying in Chicago to receive a CSN Award as the clubs top player of 2012 on Thursday night.

Klopas was also honored at the awards night, as a Fire Legend, but he was directing workouts here.

The lone uncertainty is the status of Alvaro Fernandez. A midfield starter on the left side the second half of 2012, Fernandez is apparently headed for the Qatari club Al Rayyan. A loan agreement hasnt been signed, however, and Fernandez is still technically a member of the Fire.

"Theres no update, said Klopas, "but it seems like hell be going somewhere else.

The trialists are headed by Rich Balchan, claimed off waivers after spending two seasons with the Columbus Crew; Rauwshan McKenzie, who has spent time with Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA since 2008; Luke Boden, a product of the Sheffield Wednesday system in England; and Colin Rolfe, a former University of Louisville teammate of Fire defender Austin Berry, the MLS Rookie-of-the-Year in 2012.

Also battling for a roster spot is Sam Archer, winner of the Fires open tryout in December and one of the last players cut by the Colorado Rapids in 2012.

Klopas has been conducting on-the-field workouts in the morning and fitness sessions either in the gym or running on the Naples beaches in the afternoon. That routine will be broken on Sunday when the Fire has a practice game with Florida Gulf Coast Universitys team.

In losing big showdown, Fire see why Toronto is best team in MLS

In losing big showdown, Fire see why Toronto is best team in MLS

Saturday night was a big occasion for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire hosted league-leading Toronto FC in a meeting of two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings. A crowd of 21,891, a Toyota Park record for a Fire regular season game, was there to see the improved Fire take on TFC’s deep and talented roster that features Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

The tension of a big game was clear in the reactions from the crowd and the large section of traveling Toronto fans. The sellout home crowd was raucous, but couldn’t will the Fire to a win or even a draw.

The Fire simply ran into a better team in the 3-1 loss. Now the Fire are nine points behind Toronto with nine games to go and are in all likelihood out of the Supporters’ Shield race.

“I always say Toronto is doing a great job,” Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “They have up front Giovinco, Altidore. That’s a different category.”

Now the Fire’s focus turns to securing a good playoff seed and chasing down New York City FC for the second spot, and with it the first-round bye. The Fire’s club record nine-game home winning streak is a thing of the past and now the Fire have lost three in a row and five of six.

Given the recent schedule, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Four of those came on the road and losing to Toronto is no shame, even if it came at home. The Fire aren’t suddenly a bad team again, but they have fallen off from the team’s fast start to the summer.

“We played the first half of the season maybe over our limit, more than expected I would say, so we did a great job,” Schweinsteiger said. “Now, we can see what we are missing in our game and we have to find a way to come back and to win a game and we have to play all on a little bit better level.”

Three-game losing streaks have been very rare in Schweinsteiger’s career. The German played for Bayern Munich, the German national team and Manchester United. That’s the bluest of blue bloods in the sport. A three-game losing stretch for any of those teams is a full-blown crisis. Losing five of six? That’s something different for Schweinsteiger.

“Yes, it is,” Schweinsteiger said. “It is very frustrating, very disappointing. I absolutely don’t like that. It’s new.”

So is Schweinsteiger worried about the team’s recent slump?

“If you don’t win games, don’t make points, in a way yes,” he said.

While Schweinsteiger isn’t used to losing this regularly, the Fire are still in a decent position. They are still almost certainly going to make the playoffs and the schedule will get easier. Three of the next four are back at Toyota Park and two of those are against the last place team in each conference, Minnesota and D.C.

Coach Veljko Paunovic is well aware that teams go through streaks, both good and bad, through an MLS season.

“This is like a marathon,” Paunovic said. “Things like this happen and you just have to stay positive and you actually have to know that every team in the league has these kind of moments. They come and they go so we just have to believe, keep working and keep the mood.”

Toronto beat the Fire with Giovinco, a former league MVP, not being much of a factor until he put the game away with a goal in the 90th minute. Altidore was very effective in holdup play and distribution, but only had one shot. With neither of TFC's highly-paid, talented strikers playing decisive roles in the match, the Fire still lost by two goals.

The Fire, which also lost 3-1 in Toronto back in April, got a glimpse of what the bar is at the top of the league and did so in front of a playoff-like atmosphere.

“It was a great rehearsal for us, playing against one of the best teams we could face in the playoffs,” Paunovic said.

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)