After slumping without them, Fire see returns of Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent

After slumping without them, Fire see returns of Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent

After enduring a slump that coincided with three injuries to starters in the Fire’s defense, the team is starting to see the return of those players.

Matt Polster missed three games with a left knee injury, a recurring injury that has bothered him dating back to last year, before returning in last weekend’s win in Montreal. Brandon Vincent missed seven games with a quad injury and came off the bench for the final minutes.

“It felt good to kind of get that first breath in a real game situation, just for mentality wise, for competing back with the group,” Vincent said after training on Wednesday.

Polster assisted on the only goal of the game in Montreal, setting up Bastian Schweinsteiger for the game-winner. Polster said he continues to feel more comfortable at right back, partially due to the role being “much more defined.”

During his absence, Polster noticed some issues in the Fire’s losing streak.

“I thought our movement off the ball was lacking a little bit in that stretch and we weren’t really showing up for each other,” he said. “I think as a group we all stated that. We all came to terms with saying that we weren’t showing up for each other and we weren’t making those runs. I thought in the Montreal game we were all moving, we were moving off the ball and trying to get off the ball and show for each other.”

Polster has made his return to the starting lineup, but Vincent is still waiting for that. Vincent came on as an injury replacement for Patrick Doody in the 89th minute in Montreal. With Doody, who filled in while Vincent was out, missing practice this week it is expected that Vincent will start against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.

The Fire went 1-6 without Vincent right after going unbeaten for 11 straight in MLS. Vincent sees the connection, but doesn’t want to look at it like that.

“I guess it’s easy when people miss time to kind of try to draw some correlations and stuff like that,” Vincent said. “I try not to pay too much attention to it. I think the group went through a little bit of a down streak and I don’t consider myself separate from the group when I’m not playing. We’re all together in this. We all went through a down streak, we bounced back and now we’re looking to rebound and pick up some steam going into the playoffs.”

His injury occurred in warmups before the Fire played at New York City FC on July 22. The Stanford product had never dealt with an injury of that severity.

“I’ve never had any sort of muscle strain or tear or anything like that so I didn’t know what to expect, which was really scary when it happened because the pain was pretty sharp and it was just a really uncomfortable feeling that I was worried about,” Vincent said. “A lot of emotions when I came out.”

Vincent said everything is normal now and the muscle is healed, but he is working with the training staff to manage his workload to “be smart about” his return.

The first game he missed was the first one after the Gold Cup break. The 2-1 loss in Yankee Stadium was the start of a slump that saw the Fire go from contending for the Supporters’ Shield to falling into the thick of the race just to get into the playoffs.

Joao Meira, another starting defender, has missed three games since going down in the opening minutes in the Fire’s first trip to Montreal on August 16. Coach Veljko Paunovic stayed optimistic about the team’s prospects while the three were out and praised the play of Doody and Drew Conner as replacements, but admitted the injured trio was missed.

“When you go back, you see our performance since we start to lose our back line, starting with Brandon in New York City,” Paunovic said. “It was really frustrating. So it goes now in the opposite way. When you have them back it helps the team to find that performance that we had before that.“

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer


Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.

Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando


Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando

For the past two offseasons, Cam Lindley’s name has popped up as a potential key addition for the Fire.

The North Carolina sophomore has been one of the top midfielders in college soccer the past two seasons and has established himself as a good MLS prospect. The Fire held his homegrown rights after he traveled from Indianapolis to play with the Fire’s academy in high school, even helping the U-18 team win the Development Academy national title in 2015.

The Fire failed to sign him last offseason, with Lindley electing to return to college. When the college season ended and negotiations started up again this winter, Lindley turned down the Fire’s homegrown offer. Initially, it was expected that meant he was returning to school, but now Paul Tenorio has reported that the Fire traded Lindley’s homegrown rights to Orlando.

In Tenorio’s reported deal, which he said was still being finalized, the Fire receive right back Rafael Ramos and allocation money from the Lions. The move means Orlando gets the exclusive rights within MLS to negotiate with Lindley and if he signs he will still count as a homegrown for Orlando.

Lindley did not train at all with the Fire in the past year, instead electing to stay in North Carolina when he played in the PDL (a summer league for college players). In 2016, Lindley played with the Fire’s PDL team. The Fire’s three other best homegrown prospects who played in college this past season, Grant Lillard, Andrew Gutman and Mauricio Pineda, all spent some time in training with the Fire in 2017. Pineda stayed after practice multiple times with coach Veljko Paunovic in one-on-one drills. Lillard, the only senior of the four, signed his homegrown deal with the Fire earlier this week.

On the one hand, the Fire get a player in Ramos, who is 23 years old and could help provide depth at both right back and left back. The Portuguese player made 39 MLS appearances in three years with Orlando, including 24 starts in 2015, but injuries contributed to a lack of playing time last season when

Ramos played 55 MLS minutes. A hamstring injury limited him in 2016 and again in the 2017 preseason when he was expected to be the starter at right back. Once he returned, Scott Sutter had established himself at the position.

Ramos vented his frustration at a lack of playing time in an Orlando Sentinel story in October.

On the other hand, Lindley is a player who was racking up the accolades at UNC. As a freshman he tallied seven assists and was named national Freshman of the Year by Top Drawer Soccer and a first team All-ACC pick. This season, he had seven goals and 13 assists and was a first team All-American by United Soccer Coaches, Top Drawer Soccer and College Soccer News in addition to being named ACC Midfielder of the Year. The Tar Heels made it to the College Cup semifinals both years.

The midfielder could be good enough to receive interest from European teams, which could make it good business for the Fire to get something from within MLS for him instead of letting him go for free.

If the trade materializes, it will be a failure on the Fire’s part to convince a talented young player who spent time in the team’s academy to sign, but also a success in getting something of value in return for a player who may not want to sign with the team.