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01 March 9:57 am

Before settling in for the first day of MLS action on Saturday, head out to FireFest at the Illinois Youth Soccer Association's annual Expo from 9am-4pm at the Schaumburg Sports Center (1141 W. Irving Park).

Sparky will join Fire players Victor Pineda and Brendan King for an autograph signing at 11:30am while Fire staff will run through coaching demonstrations at 2:00 and 3:00pm.

The full schedule of events can be found by clicking here.

01 March 9:29 am

The Fire start the 2013 MLS season at the Home Depot Center on Sunday against the two-time defending champions LA Galaxy (LIVE 4pm CT on UniMas). Both teams made some major changes over the off-season and will be looking to start 2013 off on the right step. Here are a few tactical things to keep an eye on...

New central midfield pairing – how will the JL’s play together?

Last season, the Fire paired Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo in central midfield. This season, two new midfielders take their places: MLS veterans Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere. Both have played together in preseason but the regular season, against the defending champions at the Home Depot Center is a different animal.

Lindpere is noted for his attacking ability but he will be required to help Larentowicz defensively, especially when the Fire turn the ball over.  It will be important for both players to hold their positions and not get caught too far apart.

In an away match, it is vital to hold on to possession when you get it and it will be important for both of the JL’s to link well with each other through the match.

Set pieces – how will LA deal with service from Lindpere?

One thing that really stood out during the preseason was Lindpere’s ability to deliver a good ball into the box, especially from dead ball situations. Time after time, Lindpere put balls into the danger area – the space between the penalty spot and the six yard box. The Fire got some goals from set pieces last year and players like Austin Berry are a major threat from them.

Larentowicz is also good in the air, scoring a header in the Carolina Challenge Cup from a Lindpere corner. The Galaxy will be looking to avoid giving up silly free kicks around the area and will try to limit the number of corners the Fire but with Lindpere’s quality, the Fire can be very dangerous in this department.

LA will be debuting the vastly experienced ‘keeper Carlo Cudincini and the Fire’s set pieces will question whether he and his defense are on the same page.

Dilly Duka vs Sean Franklin – youthful exuberance vs experience

Dilly Duka looks set to make his debut for the Fire on Sunday, starting on the left wing. Duka’s opponent will likely be Sean Franklin, one of the best right backs in the league and a player with well over 100 MLS games under his belt.

This matchup is fascinating because just as Duka loves to get forward and take on his man, Franklin regularly pushes up to support in the attack, contributing with his fair share of assists. Duka will need to find a good balance between trying to keep Franklin pinned back by pushing forward, and helping out Gonzalo Segares when Franklin does advance to support the attack.

Duka is a very creative player and could end up giving Franklin a tough time but on the other side of the coin, if Segares and Duka are not in tandem, Franklin could hurt the Fire.

Robbie Keane – it’s not just all about goals

Robbie Keane’s goals dragged the Gals to their second MLS Cup victory in a row last season but his play is not all about goals. He likes to drop into the hole and link up with the Galaxy’s midfielders. Keane is very good and holding onto the ball in tight spaces and playing through balls to advancing players.

At Euro 2012, Keane played a similar role for the Republic of Ireland but was often crowed out, something the Fire should look to do if and when Keane drops deeper into the hole. Keane will certainly miss Landon Donovan and Mike Magee on Sunday but even without them, he is a major threat and should prove a handful for Berry, Friedrich and co.

Prediction: 2-1 Fire with goals from Sherjill MacDonald and Arne Friedrich. 

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.

28 February 9:11 am

About this time last year, a young Italian goalkeeper named Paolo Tornaghi was making his final moves through a trial with the Chicago Fire.

With Fire number one Sean Johnson set to miss the first few matches of the 2012 season due to Olympic qualifying, the team had already brought in veteran MLS 'keeper Jay Nolly over the offseason to fill-in.

Surprising to some though, the Inter Milan product Tornaghi usurped Nolly as the presumed number two goalkeeper and made his Fire debut in front of nearly 60,000 fans at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. 

With Johnson likely to be away for World Cup qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup this year, Fire fans should feel confident in the fact that Tornaghi has returned to the side for his second season and will continue to push Sean for the number one spot.

With all that said, Drew Farmer of the Forza Italia podcast rang up Paolo last week in Charleston to discuss his upbringing with Italian giants Inter Milan, admiration of star 'keepers Walter Zenga and Francesco Toldo, his decision to join MLS and how he likes living in Chicago.

Give it a listen here and check out Forza Italia at www.forzaitalianfootball.com.

27 February 5:35 pm

LIke hearing from Commissioner Garber in ways outside a normal conference call? Good, so do I.

We're both in luck as The Soccer Don will be doing a live address regarding the start of the MLS season this weekend on YouTube today at 5pm CT. 

Watch below...

27 February 10:24 am

The team's match at San Jose last year was quite a memorable game. Chris Rolfe had put the team ahead with a long-distance toe-poke just before halftime and Sean Johnson literally stood his head.

So good was the Fire goalkeeper in the match that he made a career high 10 saves, many of them spectacular in the 1-1 draw against the eventual Supporters Shield winners... 

10 days out from Opening Night vs. New England (TICKETS HERE), we look back on Johnson's outstanding performance last year at San Jose:

24 February 2:26 pm

With the recent announcement of Major League Soccer's Jersey Week, a lot has been raised regarding the club's plans for future kits as well as a potential third jersey. We at Always on the Inside caught up with the club's Chief Operating Officer Atul Khosla to shed some light on future jersey plans. 

Always on the Inside: MLS announced that as part of a league initiative a number of clubs would be participating in a Jersey Week celebration kicking off on Monday, Feb. 25. What does that mean for Fire supporters?

Atul Khosla: The league is moving to a yearly jersey launch cycle, where every club will roll out a new jersey each year.  It will rotate, primary/home one year, secondary/away the next year.  Therefore, each jersey is in market for a total of two years. This new approach allows a fresh product in market every year. Since the Fire launched both new kits last year, we are on an off cycle this year, similar to a number of other teams. As of next year, we will be back on cycle, and we will launch a new home kit.

PERUSE: Chicago Fire Jersey History

AOTI: Can you talk about the merchandise progress the club has made in the past few years and how you see it developing further?

AK: We want to see Chicago Fire jerseys everywhere in Chicagoland. We want people to represent our club by wearing our colors in the community, at games and around town.  It’s been a key for us to grow our merchandise and we’ve seen success over the past three years because of a number of factors.  

First was design. We have tried to refresh the product line, bring back some original Chicago touches, and at the same time push the envelope in being edgier with our brand. As part of these strides the club has built a Fan Shop at Toyota Park, grown its online presence and built a partnership with Fanatics, Inc.. It has also been key for us to integrate merch and our products throughout our marketing efforts, on television and at the stadium. These actions have resulted in solid growth and we now have to continue to build on it.

AOTI: It’s a question that is raised from time to time from some Fire supporters, what’s going on with the Chicago Fire flag third kit?

AK: We hear and understand the request from some of our supporter base for a third Fire kit, especially one that from a design standpoint has strong ties to the city of Chicago. This is precisely why over the past few years we have added key Chicago elements to our uniforms. Starting in 2010 the club worked closely with adidas to have the four, six-sided stars of the Chicago flag adorn the bottom left of the white secondary/away tops.

The current secondary/away kit includes a number of elements from the Chicago flag including horizontal lines that are created by using the stripes and four stars from the civic flag representing Fort Dearborn, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933. These details  were created to pay homage to the city and the club’s origins. I believe it’s the first time outside of a third kit that our jerseys have ever had the municipal flag woven into the design.There is tremendous and deep civic pride, and the Club will continue to build on the traditions of soccer, our supporters, our club and Chicago.  

AOTI: With that said, are you saying that Fire doesn't need a third kit?

AK: No. What I am saying is that the primary reason for creating a third kit would be to engage our fans in a unique way.  Also, we need to take into account the practical considerations of the true demand for this product so we can meet the minimum requirements from adidas before we place the order.  Since we just released new kits last year, we wanted to focus on our new designs and pace things appropriately to avoid flooding the market. 

The most successful way to create a third kit, is for us to collaborate with our supporters, get everyone energized, and create the demand.  In order to initiate this movement, in the coming weeks we will be launching a social campaign asking supporters to help us design a potential third kit, vote for their favorites, and then rally each other to make a commitment by putting a deposit down.  

Stay tuned to Chicago-Fire.com and our social channels.  We need everyone's support to make this happen and are excited to collaborate with you and create something we can all be proud of. 

23 February 11:51 am

Just 14 days until Opening Night at Toyota Park and today we feature the Fire's #14 Patrick Nyarko.

One of the most underrated players in Major League Soccer, Nyarko has been a terror for full backs throughout MLS since coming into the league in 2008. Even when it seems like a play is lost, his the Ghanaian attacker's quick feet aid in keeping things alive for the Fire.

Nyarko has led the team in assists each of the past three seasons, tallying 26 since 2010, while his goal-scoring prowess also improved last season, with a career high four goals from out wide.

With 130 regular season appearances to his name, Nyarko broke into the club's top 15 list last season and having made 64 appearances the last two seasons, seems a good bet to go as high as eighth by the end of 2013.

Get tickets to see Pat begin his sixth season in Chicago when the Fire welcome the New England Revolution to Toyota Park on Saturday, March 9 at 6:30pm.

WATCH: Patrick Nyarko Highlights

22 February 12:43 pm

On last week’s All-In Podcast, Eunice Kim and I talked about the launch of the 2013 Fire Fantasy League through MLSsoccer.com’s Fantasy Manager.

I'm happy to say Commissioner Kim has the league up and running at http://fantasy.mlssoccer.com

Vie for bragging rights with myself, Eunice and  and other Fire fans in the Official Fire Fantasy League this year where we’ll have prizes every month for the squad with the most points and an overall prize for the winner at the end other 2013 season!

We’ll even recognize the league’s highest point earner every week on the podcast (we might also talk trash to each other...)

Head to http://fantasy.mlssoccer.com, pick your team, check out the scoring system and rules and then join our Private League using code: 7609-1547

22 February 8:15 am

Even if its a preseason tournament, its nice to see the Fire atop these standings:

 

Team GP W L D Pts. GF GA GD
Chicago Fire 2 2 0 0 6 5 3 +2
Houston Dynamo 2 1 1 0 3 4 4 0
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 1 1 0 3 4 4 0
Charleston Battery 2 0 2 0 0 3 5 -2

 

But as I spoke to Chicago-Fire.com contributor Irish Steve Thursday about the scenarios for the team to clinch the Carolina Challenge Cup Saturday, one potential scenario had my head spinning.

To be clear, with two wins in their pocket, a draw or win in Saturday's first game vs. Vancouver (live at 4:00pm on Chicago-Fire.com) would give the Fire their first Challenge Cup title.

But should the team lose, say 1-0 to Vancouver and Houston beat Charleston by the same score in the tournament finale, the Fire, Dynamo and Whitecaps would then be tied not only on points, goal difference (first tie breaker), goals scored (second tie breaker) and goals against (third tie breaker). 

Under that scenario, the table would look like this:

 

Team GP W L D Pts. GF GA GD
Chicago Fire 3 2 1 0 6 5 4 +1
Houston Dynamo 3 2 1 0 6 5 4 +1
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 3 2 1 0 6 5 4 +1
Charleston Battery 3 0 3 0 0 3 6 -3

 

Head-to-head would be next best solution, right?

Well consider in that circumstance the Fire beat the Dynamo (3-2 win), the Dynamo beat Whitecaps FC (2-1 win) and potentially Whitecaps FC would have beaten the Fire (1-0 win), i.e., they would all share three points in the mini-group between the three MLS teams.

With the results of each matchday pairing with each other, the goal difference in the mini-group would be even but then, the next most logical tie-breaker (what I would call the seventh tie breaker) would be goals scored in the mini-group, which would potentially give Houston the title. 

 

Team GP W L D Pts. GF GA GD
Houston Dynamo 2 1 1 0 3 5 5 0
Chicago Fire 2 1 1 0 3 3 3 0
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 1 1 0 3 2 2 0

However, after speaking to Battery President Andrew Bell post-game Wednesday, it seems the tie-breaking procedures beyond goals against are pretty fuzzy...

Good reason for the Fire to take care of business against Vancouver Saturday afternoon, though I hear Frank Klopas is pretty lucky in coin flips!

Carolina Challenge Cup Results/Fixtures

Date Team Score Team
2/16/2013 Chicago Fire  3:2 Houston Dynamo
2/16/2013 Vancouver Whitecaps FC 3:2 Charleston Battery
2/20/2013 Houston Dynamo 2:1 Vancouver Whitecaps FC
2/20/2013 Chicago Fire  2:1 Charleston Battery
2/23/2013 Chicago Fire vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
2/23/2013 Houston Dynamo vs. Charleston Battery

 

21 February 12:43 pm

Fire Preseason Check List: 

* Some good wins
* Very few injuries
* Plenty of seafood
* Seeing team bond
* A trip to the adidas outlet for some new kicks
* A new found appreciation for salad

These have all been accomplished. Though as we come to the end of preseason, it occurred to me that not one prank has taken place.

Thankfully, Wells Thompson came through after last night's game and Michael Videira was there to capture it for us...

Sega assures me he's planning his revenge. Stay tuned, our last days in Charleston could be interesting...