Fire set for first friendly of 2018 preseason, face USF Saturday in Tampa

Five weeks to the day before kicking off the MLS season at home vs. Sporting KC, Veljko Paunovic and the Chicago Fire are set for the first of six scheduled preseason matches, facing the University of South Florida Saturday (4 p.m. CT) in Tampa.

The game is available to watch via free live stream at gousfbulls.com. Here’s some of what to watch for when the Men In Red get their season’s first look at an outside foe:

Back In The Game
After two full weeks of intrasquad competition, skill development and fitness work, an 11v11 runout against an outside opponent will no doubt be a welcome opportunity for the Fire, most memorable perhaps for those -- like draftees Jon Bakero and Mo Adams and Homegrown signing Grant Lillard -- who'll be pulling on a first-team professional jersey for the first time. But the overwhelming majority of even the most seasoned of the Fire veterans have gone more than three months since playing in a match versus outside competition, and surely have been eyeing this date as a welcome sign that the MLS season is right around the corner.

Development on D
When training camp opened in Chicago last week, Pauno cited the defensive consistency of all 11 players on the pitch as a focal point for the 2018 preseason. As that objective relates to the back line, Pauno this week saw the introduction to camp of his three returning starters from last year’s unit, as All-Star centerback Johan Kappelhof joined the team in Florida and fullbacks Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster arrived Wednesday from U.S. Men’s National Team camp.

Competition to join that trio is sure to ensue in the month ahead among the likes of returning centerbacks Jonathan Campbell and Christian Dean and rookie Grant Lillard, as well as fullbacks Rafael Ramos and Jorge Corrales. But regardless of how minutes are divided against USF, Saturday is a solid early chance to implement key ideas and build cohesion in a unit tasked with serving as the foundation for the Fire attack going forward, and to further establish a rapport with Fire GKs Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland.

Next Impressions
With Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic both still months away from a return to the pitch due to late-season knee injuries in 2017, there are plenty of players looking to step up and earn larger roles in midfield and the offensive third alongside the likes of veterans Nemanja Nikolic and Luis Solignac. In addition to the aforementioned rookies and returners like Daniel Johnson, Drew Conner and Brandt Bronico, the Fire have been joined since the beginning of camp by a number of trialists eyeing the chance to impress Veljko Paunovic and his staff in hopes of earning a contract for 2018. Forwards Josh Gatt and Albert Ruiz and SuperDraft selections Diego Campos and Elliot Collier represent unsigned candidates who could feature Saturday, as do Sam Howard and Maxi Moreira, trialists at goalkeeper and on the back line, respectively.

Wide-Eyed
Bob Butehorn, entering his second season as head men's soccer coach at the University of South Florida, no doubt has a roster full of players who are relishing the opportunity to face MLS squads in preseason like the New York Red Bulls -- which put seven goals past USF over the course of three 30-minute periods last Saturday -- and now the Chicago Fire. But in particular, there's at least one member of the collegiate squad who is understandably a bit incredulous about the potential of lining up opposite Bastian Schweinsteiger, the World Cup champion now enjoying his first preseason training camp experience in MLS. Watch below as sophomore Adrian Billhardt talks about growing up in Germany and now finding himself in the same fixture as an icon like Schweinsteiger: