Fire

Despite All-Star hype, Real Madrid focused on its preseason

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USA TODAY

Despite All-Star hype, Real Madrid focused on its preseason

Real Madrid is one of the biggest sports brands in the world and any time they visit an American city it's a big deal.

That's how Chicago and Major League Soccer are treating Los Merengues' appearance for the MLS All-Star Game. There's plenty of events, advertising and attention given to the All-Star Game to show what a big deal it is to MLS and soccer in Chicago.

However, for Real Madrid, the two-time defending UEFA Champions League winners, this is still just the preseason. On top of that, Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the two most famous and talented soccer players in the world alongside Leo Messi, isn't with the team.

"We want to end the preseason with a victory," German midfielder Toni Kroos said in a press conference before the match on Tuesday. "It's an important game. It's the last game before the real season starts, before the games count.

"That's why we are here, to win this game tomorrow, to prepare for the next games."

Madrid hasn't yet won in the preseason. Real has lost to Manchester United on penalties in Santa Clara, Calif., got smoked by Manchester City 4-1 in Los Angeles and lost to rival Barcelona in Miami.

While the team isn't going to worry about negative results in exhibition matches, a club used to winning with regularity won't want to go without a win on its four-match U.S. tour.

"It's only preseason, that's all," manager Zinedine Zidane said through a translator. "The most important thing is to finish (the preseason) well."

While the MLS All-Stars will be playing for the pride of their league. The value of a result in an exhibition game always has questionable, at best, value. It still can provide extra exposure to the league, who now boasts a solid collection of world famous players, and may give extra attention to the Chicago Fire in a resurgent season for the team.

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic, who is also coaching the MLS All-Stars, said playing against Real Madrid is "an occasion that you just cannot let go.” For Madrid, it's still just preseason, but playing the MLS All-Stars is strange because of the thrown-together aspect of the All-Star team.

"In terms of organization, I don't know how they're going to play," Zidane said. "What I do know is they're a very good team."

What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

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What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

For much of this winter, it appeared the Fire would enter 2018 with much of the same team that had the third best record in the league in 2017.

There were only minor surprises when the team announced which options it picked up and which players were cut loose. Homegrown signing Grant Lillard was the first addition of the offseason on Jan. 10 and that was expected after he completed his college career.

However, Nelson Rodriguez was apparently busy in the week leading up to the draft and saw that work turned into three trades on Friday. The Fire got two picks in the top 10 and sent away two starters from last year, including key winger David Accam.

There were already holes to fill on the roster, but the exits of Accam and goalkeeper Matt Lampson mean there are a couple more position needs with training camp starting on Monday.

“The roster is very much incomplete,” Rodriguez said after the draft. “There’s still quite a bit of work left to do. While it’s ideal to go into training camp with something that more closely resembles the roster that you’re looking to get into the season with. In our case, it is more important that we continue to add pieces that we think fit our style, fit our mentality, fit our philosophy and it’s important now that we remain disciplined in that pursuit and not feel pressure to just close the deal.”

A look at a potential starting lineup based on the current roster isn’t by any means bad, but it does need some improvement to match or improve upon last year.

Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty again give the Fire an elite central midfield pairing, Nemanja Nikolic is back after winning the Golden Boot in his first year and the defense should be somewhat solid depending on how Lillard and Jonathan Campbell fill in for the departed Joao Meira. However, goalkeeper is a question mark with Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland having two MLS appearances between them and Nikolic needs help in the attack with Accam and Arturo Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic expected to be out until at least July while recovering from torn ACLs.

Seeing Accam leave seemed like an inevitability at some point after years of rumors and complaints. Now that it’s a reality, it’s up to Rodriguez and the Fire to deliver an attack that can be productive without him after he had 14 goals and eight assists last year.

Second-year player Daniel Johnson is the immediate fill-in for Accam. He showed flashes of his potential last year as a rookie, but was limited to 125 after dealing with multiple injuries in 2017. Jon Bakero has the ability to step in underneath Nikolic, but that is an important role to throw at a rookie. The Fire’s dip at the end of last season coincided with de Leeuw’s injury so getting production out of that spot will be important.

The Fire could probably do just fine with one of Johnson or Bakero playing significant minutes in the first half of the season, but both? That’s asking an awful lot out of inexperienced players and it’s why the attack is likely where other moves will come.

Rodriguez said after the draft that there had been more trades in the works and some may still happen.

“We were very aggressive in Florida and here in Philadelphia in trying to make trades within the league and we were unsuccessful,” he said. “Some of those opportunities were by design, by our pursuit. There are still some opportunities which we wish to continue exploring and we will continue to make efforts.”

Rodriguez said the Accam trade gave the team “a lot of flexibility.” The allocation money gives the Fire an expanded salary cap of sorts to work with. Rodriguez said it “further opens up targets in the league” and he also added that they have specific players in mind.

“We also have three targets in particular outside of MLS,” he said. “I would say it’s possible given our current stated resources, our salary budget against the cap, it’s possible to potentially add two of those. Again, those are international deals. You first have to get the deal done before you can worry about the salary budget implications, but we will continue to be deliberate in our actions and disciplined in our attention.”

The Fire's roster is at 21, with two of those going to miss half the season due to injury, after finishing last season with 30.

Fire stay busy on draft day, trade David Accam to Philadelphia

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Fire stay busy on draft day, trade David Accam to Philadelphia

The dominoes continue to fall on the Fire's offseason, and seem to be doing so at an increasing pace.

After making two trades on draft day, the blockbuster move of the day broke after the first round completed. As first reported by Paul Tenorio and later announced at the draft, the Fire traded winger David Accam to Philadelphia for $300,000 in General Allocation Money and $900,000 in Targeted Allocation Money. The $1.2 million total is among the biggest allocation money trades in league history.

The move will have major implications on 2018 due to Accam's production since joining the Fire in 2015, but also because it likely is a move to set up other moves. Accam had his best year with the Fire in 2017 with 14 goals and eight assists while only making 24 starts (30 appearances in total).

"David had three very strong years for us and as we move forward though, we thought this would help," general manager Nelson Rodriguez said after the draft.

However, he had voiced his displeasure about being left off the All-Star Game roster by coach Veljko Paunovic, saying he was "disappointed my coach ignored me." Accam seemed to be appeased when the Fire picked up his option for 2018 in August. With his contract situation somewhat more sorted out, it appeared Accam may still have a future with the Fire despite having previously stated a desire to return to Europe at some point in his career.

Despite that history, Rodriguez said the Fire did not initiate talks for the trade.

"David never asked to leave," Rodriguez said. "I think he was surprised by the trade, but you’d have to ask him. It came together over the past week while we were in Florida for the combine and Philadelphia for the draft. The Union was aggressive in its bid and its intention.”

Rodriguez admitted to interest in Accam both from abroad and within MLS in the past. He explained the timing of why the trade was made now and other offers were turned down in the past.

“This was the most attractive offer we had in this window," Rodriguez said. "Circumstances change. We’re different today than we were in August when there were some other offers from overseas clubs. We just felt that this was an opportunity for us to try to advance our championship program in a different way and we thought it was a fair deal for both parties.”

While the move is a big one for Philadelphia in getting a player like Accam, the Fire likely aren't done. This is typically not the type of move that is made without another move in mind. Juan Quintero rumors continue to float around with the Fire and Argentine club River Plate both being mentioned as possible landing places for the Colombian international who has scored at a World Cup.

With Accam leaving, the Fire have an open spot for a Designated Player. Nemanja Nikolic and the recently re-signed Bastian Schweinsteiger are the two DPs on the roster.