Eugene Rupinski, Brotherly Game) The Fire seem to be doing just fine with Bastian Schweinsteiger out injured. Who has stepped up the most to help the team in his absence?
Sean Spence, Hot Time In Old Town) The Fire aren't a sinking ship without Schweinsteiger, true - but with the German legend, the Men in Red are a much more formidable collective, flexible and commanding. The Fire you'll see tonight (in Schweinsteiger's absence, which we are given to understand will continue) don't shapeshift to confound opposition tactics, or consistently hit 70-yard switches that open play.
The uptick in form the last few matches has coincided almost perfectly with the return of Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent from injury. A roster filled with guys who want to work outside-in is balanced by Chicago's young wingbacks, whose surprising excellence was a crucial component of the squad's 10-week unbeaten run in early summer. Also, homegrown player Drew Conner filled in admirably in a double pivot with Dax McCarty against DC United - if Juninho can't go, expect to see him back in the middle again.
tBG) There for a while it seemed like Coach (and ex-Philadelphia Union player) Veljko Paunovic's seat was getting hotter and hotter. What's the general feeling about Pauno's job security?
HTIOT) The answer is hard to get at using published sources, because in the last couple years the Fire have fairly ruthlessly weeded out access to reporters willing to write about things like the players' state of mind or the behavior of the coaches - Hot Time, of course, was among the first outlets so dragooned. So take everything I'm saying with as many grains of salt as you find necessary - this is third-hand information that no one will speak on the record about at all.
With all those provisos, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that Pauno's job is a good bit less secure than the team's record would indicate. Yes, the results have been good, and the team went through a stretch wherein it was legitimately one of the more-dominant sides I'd seen roll through MLS - but the tactical flexibility that was the hallmark of that run has been greatly lessened whenever Basti isn't on the pitch. And the chief tactical problem the team faced - an inability to make chances consistently against teams content to defend in a low block - remains as much an issue today as when it was first raised in a 0-0 draw against a 9-man Orlando side.
Finally, there are murmurs around the team that Pauno's eagle-proud persona is a big part of the dysfunctional dynamic in the locker room. I've heard stories that make him sound like a hyper-competitive douche who can't read real-world boundaries - the kind of guy who'd smash the table and storm out on when someone else buys Boardwalk and Park Place. Given that Nelson Rodriguez stated intention to remake the Fire into the Ms. Pennywhistle's Gentle Lads - along with everything else - I think Pauno needs this team to play pretty well down the stretch to be safe. If they fall apart, he could go, despite this clearly being the best season for CF97 since at least 2012.
tBG) The road to the MLS Cup goes through Toronto. It's still early, but how confident are you of the Fire's chances in the playoffs?
HTIOT) Reply hazy - ask again later. Seriously, the MLS Playoffs are all about form, and we're still five passion plays away from even knowing the matchups.
I can imagine a scenario where the Fire storm through the playoffs - everyone gets healthy and remembers the joy of so thoroughly dominating opponents; Atlanta looks dangerous but we keep the ball and expose their ancient defenders; Villa gets man-marked into the locker room and NYC fall aside; Toronto is heavyweights trading haymakers, the kind of series you wish John Facenda was around to narrate. But there's the opposite one, where Basti stays hurt, Meira pulls up limping again, and the possession game gets undone by one weak link, where the Fire fall backwards into the playoffs and are an easy mark for any side in form. I rate the two about equally likely, with the outcomes between more likely still.
Injuries, suspensions, etc.:
Bastian Schweinsteiger is doubtful as his recovery from a calf injury continues to be slow. John Goossens' long recovery from a catastrophic ankle injury continues but he is unlikely to feature. Juninho has consistently been available, but just as consistently not fit for 90 minutes, due to a mysterious foot problem the club hasn't said much about. And Joao Meira has looked sharp in sub minutes; if he's feeling up to it, expect to see the Portuguese pass-master back in the Fire backline. David Accam battles soft-tissue injuries from time to time, but seems fit at the moment.
Everyone else is healthy and available for selection.