Chicago Fire

Henry crosses the pond, on his way to the Big Apple

Henry crosses the pond, on his way to the Big Apple

Wednesday, July 14, 2010
5:10 PM
By Justin O'Neil
CSNChicago.com

Los Angeles got their star in 2007. New York appears to have their star in 2010.

When David Beckham signed a five-year deal to move to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, it made international headlines and shocked soccer insiders around the world. According to reports, the Empire State is getting their own world-class star, with French striker Thierry officially signing with the Red Bulls on Wednesday.

Beckham is a better-known name around the world, but true soccer fans will be more excited to see Henry moving across the pond. Henry is will simply be the best player in the U.S. since Brazilian legend Pele was with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s.

While it can be seen as fashionable to rag on Beckham, few would put the Englishman as the same class as Henry. Henry is one of the greatest players in soccer history: he led the 1998 World Cup Champions with three goals in the tournament, led the English Premier League in scoring four times, the Champions League in scoring twice, and was runner-up for the FIFA Player of the Year Award on two occasions while playing for Arsenal.

Henry was not great at the 2010 World Cup, but neither was any other Frenchman. The team imploded with the outgoing coach Crazy Ray Raymond Domenech feuding with captain Patrick Viera and sending striker Nicolas Anelka home after a locker room spat. Henry was one of the few members of the French team to come out with no blame, even meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss the meltdown.

While the results of the Beckham move have been mixed, including Beckham and teammate Landon Donovan trading barbs in the press, the move trained the international eye on the MLS like never before. When Beckham received a straight red card for a two-footed tackle last season, the league earned begrudging respect from the English press for not coddling Beckham and giving him special treatment.

Beckham and Donovan put the feud to bed since their rocky first season, and advanced to the MLS Cup Final last season, losing on penalties to Real Salt Lake.

Only Henry knows the true reasons for the move, but having won everything a footballer can hope to win, he is at a different stage of his life. He is no longer the captain of France after being reduced to coming off the bench for both his country and at FC Barcelona. At Barcelona, he is forced to play a more complimentary role because of the sheer class of the players around him.

He has for a long time been an admirer of the U.S. and New York, and is good friends with fellow Frenchman Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs. The move to the U.S. has been rumored for years.

Fans would be wrong to think the move is a cash grab by an aging star. Henrys salary and endorsements in Europe already make him one of the best-paid athletes in the world.

Henry turns 33 in August, the same age that Beckham made his move to the MLS. Henry should be reenergized by the move, and bring a winning mentality to the Red Bulls. Barcelona won its second consecutive Spanish League, and was knocked out in the semi-finals of the Champions League last month, a year after winning the competition.

Henry will be the main attraction at the brand-new Red Bull Arena, and be an integral part of the resurgent Red Bulls. He is the third European superstar to make the move to the MLS in the past three years. In addition to the Beckham move, Henrys former Arsenal teammate Freddie Ljungberg signed with the expansion Seattle Sounders last year.

The Fire made a big splash in 2007 when they signed Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco. The midfielder was a good move both on the field and off it, drawing additional followers from the Mexican-American community, but Blanco left the Fire at the conclusion of the 2009 season.

The MLS allows teams to go above the salary cap with the designated player rule, which is how teams on relatively small wage budgets are able to sign international stars. With Blanco gone, the Fire are without a designated player, and seem to be the most logical destination for the next international star that wants to jump to this side of the pond. Both the Galaxy and Red Bulls now have two designated players, while the Fire has none.

Chicago is still searching for their identity, as they are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 4-5-5 record. The team has talent and could make a playoff push, but without true star quality or an impressive breakthrough from the team academy, looks unlikely to compete for a title in the near future.

The Fire can and should be the next team to snatch a big-name. Whether it happens will come down to money, effort by the team, and the sheer luck of a star looking for a fresh start in a new place.

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)