With Dax McCarty away, Juninho seeks to prove his worth for Fire

With Dax McCarty away, Juninho seeks to prove his worth for Fire

Of all the Chicago Fire’s notable acquisitions in the offseason, midfielder Dax McCarty has arguably been the most important.

Goalkeeper Matt Lampson seems to think so.

“It’s amazing how invaluable he is,” Lampson said last week of McCarty. “To me, right now he is the most valuable player on our team because of what he brings, just in mentality and everything that he does every single game. He’s been fantastic for us.”

McCarty has played every minute of the Fire’s 13 games so far. That will change beginning with Sunday’s game at Orlando because McCarty is away with the national team, which is playing a friendly and two World Cup qualifiers before he is expected to return sometime after the June 10 game against Atlanta.

McCarty’s loss could be a big blow to the Fire, which have won four straight games.

“Dax is very important for our team, his leadership and his quality on the field, experience also,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “But also we know that everyone who is working behind and waiting for his opportunity was working hard and expecting to get minutes so whoever steps in we are confident that he is going to do well.”

[MORE FIRE: With Under-20 World Cup back, Fire's Serbian coaching trio relive historic title]

The task for Paunovic, as he put it, is to “find a way that the team works” without McCarty. When asked about who would replace McCarty in the lineup, Paunovic said he wouldn’t tell reporters that.

The most obvious option is Juninho. The Brazilian has started seven matches this season, but none of the last four due to a sprained ankle and the team being on a good run without him.

“I think the time out on the bench was part of the game,” Juninho said. “I’m a player so I have to respect who was doing a good job on the field. When I have to step up I have to show why I am here.”

Juninho has been training the past two weeks after being limited with the ankle sprain. He said he is hoping to play all 90 minutes on Sunday, something he hasn’t done since April 21.

“The coach didn’t decide yet the formation he’s going to use for this game against Orlando, but I have a big chance to be in the lineup,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for it. I was out for a sprained ankle and I was recovering all this time and tried to get minutes, as much minutes as possible. I hope I can be on the field on Sunday.”

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves


Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

The MLS offseason doesn't take long to get in gear.

The Fire traded Arturo Alvarez earlier on Sunday, the same day which the list of protected players was to be announced ahead of Tuesday's expansion draft for Los Angeles FC.

LAFC will take five players in the expansion draft, which is set for 1 p.m. on Tuesday. A team can only lose one player. Each team can protect 11 players and homegrown players aren't eligible for selection. For the Fire that means Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic can't be taken.

The Fire protected David Accam, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho, Matt Polster, Richard Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luis Solignac and Brandon Vincent.

While Sanchez and Schweinsteiger are out of contract, the Fire have said they are negotiating with both players. Protecting Juninho is a bit of a surprise because it implies that the Fire have some intention of keeping him for next year, or at least keeping his rights to be traded.

The Fire left David Arshakyan, Jorge Bava, Brandt Bronico, Stefan Cleveland, Jorge Corrales, Michael de Leeuw, Christian Dean, Daniel Johnson and Matt Lampson unprotected. De Leeuw would be a worthwhile pickup for LA if it thinks he is worth it after his ACL tear suffered late in the season.

With only five players being selected it's fairly likely no Fire players are taken by LAFC, but it's arguable that de Leeuw will end up being one of the best five players available. The 31-year-old tied for the team lead with eight assists and scored three goals.

Fire open offseason by sending Arturo Alvarez home


Fire open offseason by sending Arturo Alvarez home

And they're off.

MLS Cup finished just last night with Toronto completing arguably the best season in league history, but the offseason doesn't wait long to get going. The Fire took advantage of Sunday's short trade window before Los Angeles FC's expansion draft takes place on Tuesday by trading Arturo Alvarez to the Houston Dynamo.

Alvarez, a Houston native, gets to go home and could finish his career with the Dynamo. The Fire received a second-round pick in the 2019 draft.

Alvarez, 32, made 55 regular season MLS appearances with the Fire in two years. He had five goals and nine assists in 2016, leading the team in assists. This past season he saw his minutes get nearly cut in half although he did regain a regular spot in the team towards the end of the season and finished with three goals and two assists.

“Arturo had perhaps his two best years wearing our red and we appreciate all that he gave to our club,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodríguez said in the team's statement. “We saw this as a chance to allow him to return home while opening up his minutes for some other players.”

The question is which players Rodriguez is referring to. Alvarez played primarily at right midfield, frequently cutting inside with his dangerous left foot. Two players come to mind as possible fill-ins already on the roster: Daniel Johnson and Brandt Bronico.

Johnson was the Fire's first-round pick in the 2017 draft and showed flashes of ability, but dealt with injuries through much of the season and made eight substitute appearances totaling 125 minutes. He is a wide player, but was the opposite of Alvarez, typically playing on the left and cutting in on his right foot.

Bronico was the 2017 third-round pick and made only four sub appearances adding up to 53 minutes played. With such limited action it was difficult to gauge whether he could be a wide midfielder or should be played centrally. Either way, with Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic out for the first few months of 2018 with ACL tears, both Johnson and Bronico will have opportunities the way the roster is currently constructed.

More news is due later today with the expansion draft set for Tuesday. The Fire will announce the 11 players they are protecting. Homegrown players (Drew Conner and Mihailovic) won't need to be protected. The Fire have 17 others players that will be eligible for the expansion draft.