Chicago Fire

Preview: Fire start road trip at Toronto Friday on CSN Plus 2

Preview: Fire start road trip at Toronto Friday on CSN Plus 2

After an undefeated three-game homestand, the Chicago Fire now head on the road for three straight.

The first of the three road games is at Toronto FC, the defending Eastern Conference champions, on Friday. Coverage is on CSN Plus 2 starting at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

Check out CSN's channel finder for where CSN Plus 2 is available for you. The match will air on Cozi TV. The Fire released further broadcast information for the match, including re-airs on CSN+ (11 p.m. Friday) and CSN (1 p.m. Saturday).

Toronto (1-1-4, 7 points) is out of the playoff positions for now, but has had just two matches at home. Both of those matches have been draws. The Fire (3-1-2, 11 points) 0-1-1 on the road so far this season.

The two teams met in the final preseason match in Florida. The Fire won 4-1. That result shouldn't have any bearing on Friday's match, but does provide some familiarity for some of the Fire's new players.

"This is for me, one of the best teams in MLS, for sure," Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic said. "We played against them in Florida. OK, this was the friendly game, but in that game we played really good and we can show some things. They have a lot of good players, a lot of individual players who can finish the game alone so we need to watch out on these things and to be prepared."

The trio of forwards Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore and midfielder Michael Bradley lead the way for TFC. Altidore has gotten off to a hot start with three goals and two assists while Giovinco has scored one goal.

Both Giovinco and Altidore will provide a tough test for a Fire defense that has recorded back-to-back shutouts.

"Just don't let him breathe, put pressure on him," defender Michael Harrington said. "These guys are good players, but they're very good players when you don't have pressure on them and you don't take care of them. Also when we have the ball we got to make sure that we're aware of where they are on the field so when the ball turns over, they don't get the ball in dangerous spots. These guys are good players, but it's nothing we can't handle and it's something we prepared for."

Last season Toronto swept the season series with three one-goal victories against the Fire. Giovinco had a goal and two assists in those games while Altidore had a goal and an assist.

"We will do everything to stop him," coach Veljko Paunovic said of Giovinco. "Great player, obviously with Giovinco in attack, a very difficult attack for all the teams around the league. We played against difficult teams in the past. Just last week against (Juan) Agudelo and (Kei) Kamara was also good attack, and Lee Nguyen also, so we are used to it. We have to know that there aren't easy games in this league. There are not easy attackers and we have to do everything to stop them. We will find a way."

A win would be a statement that the Fire are in the upper echelon of the conference, but even a draw would be a positive result. Despite a relatively slow start, Toronto is still one of the most talented teams in the league and has lost just once so far.

Midfielder Matt Polster's season debut for the Fire has continued to be pushed back. Polster has returned to training, but was still limited this week. After coming off a knee injury, Polster is listed as questionable with "right hip flexor tightness." Daniel Johnson, who has come off the bench each of the last three games, is also listed as questionable with a left adductor strain.

Toronto's injury report is lengthier. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin is out for the third straight game. Alex Bono has started in his place. Starting centerback Drew Moor is also out.

Chicago Fire at Toronto FC

Where: BMO Field, Toronto

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

TV: CSN Plus 2/Cozi TV (channel finder)

Records: Fire (3-1-2, 11 points), TFC (1-1-4, 7 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.