Chicago Fire

MLS All-Star game is a work in progress

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MLS All-Star game is a work in progress

The Major League Soccer All-Star Game has been a work in progress in the past, and that remains the case this year.

Fan balloting began Friday for the match pitting the MLS squad against UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea on July 25 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. MLS squad selection is a long, confusion process that started with media from around the league determining the top six players on each team.

For the Fire, that meant goalkeeper Sean Johnson, defender Gonzalo Segares, midfielders Sebastian Grazzini, Marco Pappa and Pavel Pardo and forward Dominic Oduro will be on the fans ballot.

Fans can vote through July 2, either through the MLS website or via text messaging or Twitter. Those votes will determine the designated All-Star First XI, with the players announced at the halftime of the Fires home match vs. the Los Angeles Galaxy on July 8.

That wont determine the whole team, though. Ex-Fire captain Peter Nowak, now the coach of the Philadelphia Union, is the coach of the MLS All-Stars this year. He will choose the game day roster and the starting lineup. MLS commissioner Don Garber will also have two picks for selection eligibility to be announced on July 25. The leagues players will also vote for their peers as part of the selection process.

In the end, 32 players will be designated as All-Stars, as per the leagues collective bargaining agreement with its players. Obviously, not all of them will be on the field against Chelsea. Of the Fire nominees, only Pappa has had a taste of All-Star activity. He was a starter in the 2010 match, a 5-2 loss to Manchester United in Houston.

MLS has tried a variety of formats for its version of All-Star weekend. In the leagues first two seasons, 1996 and 1997, teams were chosen by conference with the East meeting the West.

In 1998, when the Fire joined the league, the match pitted MLS players from the United States against those from the rest of the world. That was an interesting concept, but it didnt last long. It was back to East vs. West in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

The 2002 version pitted the MLS All-Stars against the U.S. national team, and just one MLS squad also participated the following year when the opponent was CD Guadalajara, the popular Mexican club known as Chivas.

After another try of East vs. West in 2004, the league opted for the present matchup of one MLS squad facing a notable international club Englands Fulham in 2005, Chelsea in 2006, Celtic FC of Scotland in 2007, Englands West Ham in 2008, Englands Everton in 2009 and Englands Manchester United in both 2010 and 2011.

The two matches with Man-U were the only matches the MLS squad lost during the seven-year run. The 4-2-1 mark compiled by the MLS squad in that period included a 1-0 victory over Chelsea before a sold-out crowd of 21,210 at Toyota Park in 2006. The game has been a sellout every year since 2005.

With tougher games awaiting, Fire miss opportunity to gain ground in standings

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USA TODAY

With tougher games awaiting, Fire miss opportunity to gain ground in standings

Saturday got off to a good start for the Fire with New York City FC drawing at home, but the Fire were unable to gain ground in the race for second place in the Eastern Conference.

Not only did the Fire fail to gain ground, they lost ground. Philadelphia smashed the Fire 3-1 on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium, leaving the Fire four points behind NYCFC for second and vulnerable to the chasing pack. Atlanta can pass the Fire for third place with a win against Montreal on Sunday, and still would have a game in hand.

Things don’t get any easier for the Fire with a trip at San Jose coming up on Wednesday. The Earthquakes are in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference and have one home loss this season.

While Philadelphia has won a majority of its home matches this season, it was the easiest of the three remaining road games on the Fire’s schedule. In addition to the trip to San Jose, the Fire close the regular season at Houston, another team in the playoff hunt that has just one home loss this year.

So Saturday wasn’t such a good day for the Fire.

The game marked the first start for defender Joao Meira since Aug. 16, but midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho missed once again. This was the third straight game Schweinsteiger missed and two straight for Juninho.

Philadelphia took the lead on a Chris Pontius header in the 10th minute and added goals in the second half by Pontius and C.J. Sapong to secure a three-goal lead. Luis Solignac, who came off the bench to replace David Accam in the 60th minute, provided the Fire with a consolation goal, but there wasn’t another to make things interesting in the final minutes.

With four games left in the regular season, the Fire have a pair of tricky games coming up with that trip to San Jose before a big one at home against NYCFC.

With push for playoff seeding in full force, Fire head to Philadelphia with key absences

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With push for playoff seeding in full force, Fire head to Philadelphia with key absences

There aren’t many easy games left on the Fire’s schedule, but Saturday’s game in Philadelphia appears to be one of the more winnable games remaining even if it is on the road.

The Union have a respectable 7-4-3 home record, but are out of the playoff race and are winless in six straight. The Fire hope to pick up a second straight road win, keep pace with New York City FC and stay ahead of red-hot Atlanta in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The game will be televised on CSN+ (channel finder) with coverage beginning at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

While on paper the game is winnable, the Fire will once again be significantly shorthanded in midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho are both out with injuries. Schweinsteiger will miss his third straight game while Juninho will be out for two in a row. The Fire beat D.C. United 3-0 with Dax McCarty pairing with Drew Conner in central midfield last weekend.

With Joao Meira returning from injury as a sub in that win against D.C., coach Veljko Paunovic could run a similar lineup to the one from last week or elect to go with three centerbacks in an altered formation. Either way, the Fire remain without key pieces during a time of year when the team wants to be hitting its peak with the playoffs just over a month away.

“You want to get your top 11 group on the field together so they can get games, but if that’s not the case then you can also get guys experience and you can get younger guys in games that mean something and that matter because there’s no substitute for experience,” McCarty said. “You can’t replicate that in training. Guys like Drew Conner, guys like Djordje (Mihailovic). Those guys that are going to be very important for us in our playoff push and our depth heading into the playoffs.

“That’s the reason why depth is so important in MLS because while you would love to be able to count on your first 11 every single time you step on the field, (but) that’s not the case. I think we’ve seen that throughout the whole season. I don’t think we’ve had our first 11 group on the field together for months so you want depth and obviously it’s important to get guys healthy."

The extent of Schweinsteiger’s injuries hasn’t been clear. He had a bruise on his calf from a collision during the match in Montreal on Sept. 2, but also has a thigh injury. Schweinsteiger appeared to be nearing a return last week when he was running and working out in training separate from the group, but he was not at training on Tuesday or Wednesday this week, which implied a setback.

When asked about Schweinsteiger’s status, Paunovic has remained coy.

“Basti is very important for the team,” Paunovic said. “We want him as soon as possible. We will provide all the help that we can. As soon as we can have him back it’s going to be very important for the team. Also during that time we have guys who are prepared and ready and want to step in.”

Everyone knows he is a key absence, but the team has a solid 2-1-3 record without him this year.

“It doesn’t take a genius to see the positive attributes that he brings to the team,” McCarty said of Schweinsteiger. “He’s been one of our best players and obviously he’s a focal point for the way that we do things, not only defensively, but attacking as well. He’s a guy who teams have to account for whenever he’s on the ball. His vision, his ability to make plays within the game, knowing what the game needs and what time, you can’t substitute that. It makes my job easier, it makes our strikers’ jobs easier, so it’s a big loss not having him on the field.”

Chicago Fire at Philadelphia Union

Where: Talen Energy Stadium (Chester, Penn.)

TV: CSN + (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (14-9-6, 48 points), Union (8-12-9, 33 points)