Facing defending MLS champ Seattle is 'a great motivation' for the Fire

Facing defending MLS champ Seattle is 'a great motivation' for the Fire

After going through a three-game road trip with one point, the Chicago Fire return to Toyota Park with the reigning MLS Cup champions awaiting them.

The Fire (3-3-3, 12 points) host the Seattle Sounders (2-3-4, 10 points) on Saturday at 8 p.m. It is an opportunity for the Fire to pick up a statement win against the defending champs, albeit the somewhat struggling defending champs, in front of a national TV audience.

“It will be nice to be back home,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We’ve won a couple games at home. Obviously if you want to be a playoff team you have to win your home games.”

The Fire are undefeated at home (3-0-1) and the Sounders have just one win in five road matches (1-2-2). Seattle is coming off a pair of disappointing games at home. First was a 3-3 draw against New England in which the Sounders trailed 3-0 after 70 minutes. Next was a 1-0 loss against a Toronto team which sat a few key starters, including former MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco.

Seattle actually has a worse record through nine matches than last year when the Sounders made a miraculous closing run to the regular season to get into the playoffs and then stayed hot in the postseason. The Sounders were 4-4-1 a year ago and then won just two of the next 12 matches.

Despite the Sounders’ inconsistency to begin 2017, the Fire are still looking at this match as a way to prove a point.

“The current champion, it’s always a great motivation,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “They are a fantastic team, a lot of good players, great coaching staff, culture. They have it all. We also believe that motivates a lot. We also believe that we are ready. We are very close to be the team that we want to be and we will work hard towards that goal.”

[MORE FIRE: Drew Conner moves positions to make first MLS start]

“Seattle is a good team,” Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “They won last year. We know that. They have also very good players. They try to play so much as they can. They have a very good player with Clint Dempsey. We are looking forward to competing with them, but we are more focused on our game.”

Dempsey has three goals and an assist, showing that he is still a dangerous player after sitting out the latter half of 2016 due to an irregular heartbeat. Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro is still keying the attack with three goals and four assists. Former Fire left back Joevin Jones has emerged as one of the top attacking fullbacks in the league with five assists.

The match also marks a second return to Toyota Park for former Fire homegrown player Harry Shipp, who was traded by Montreal to Seattle in Shipp’s second trade is as many offseasons.

“Really talented from top to bottom,” McCarty said. “A lot of different ways they can hurt you. A lot of good attacking players and when their attacking players are clicking they’re one of the toughest to defend in the league.”

On the downside, Jordan Morris has just two goals after netting 12 in his rookie year. Seattle may miss both of its regular centerback pairing. Roman Torres (out with a hamstring injury) and Chad Marshall (questionable with a back injury) are both hurt.

For the Fire, midfielder Juninho is listed as questionable with a right ankle sprain. If he is unable to start that could move the Fire to a different formation. Potentially the Fire could lineup in a 4-4-2 with Michael de Leeuw pairing with Nemanja Nikolic at forward or Paunovic could elect to return to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Schweinsteiger sitting deeper and next to McCarty in midfield with de Leeuw playing underneath Nikolic.

Either way, the Fire are hoping to snap a three-game winless streak.

“We haven’t won in three games now and that’s unacceptable so we need to get back in the win column,” McCarty said.

Fire rumored to be connected to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas


Fire rumored to be connected to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas

They don’t call it silly season in Europe for nothing.

The offseason rumors that pop up and, in some cases, happen make for good entertainment around the world of soccer. Sometimes those rumors are connected to MLS, whether or not the chances of them coming to fruition are high.

The latest example of this is Steven Goff of the Washington Post tweeting out a juicy rumor involving the Chicago Fire and former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

Goff doesn’t sound very confident in it happening and there are plenty of reasons why, but there are also reasons why it could make sense. In this case, it makes sense for Casillas to be looking for a home to continue his career. When his contract at FC Porto expires at the end of this European season in June, he will be 37 years old.

It’s been two and a half years since he left Real Madrid, where he spent the rest of his career, and he’s not the elite goalkeeper he once was. If Casillas wants to keep playing he may not be able to stick at a Champions League club like Porto, and that’s where the MLS rumors come into play. It makes sense for Casillas to have interest in joining MLS.

On the Fire’s end, the team isn’t loaded at goalkeeper, although there are three keeprs under contract (Matt Lampson, Jorge Bava, Stefan Cleveland) with the possibility of a fourth (Richard Sanchez) also returning. The numbers logjam could be rectified without much problem if the Fire have a chance to snag Casillas.

His experience as a World Cup and Champions League winner (like Bastian Schweinsteiger), would be a nice addition to the team, regardless of age. Casillas was one of the best goalkeepers in the world and won Spain's La Liga five times and the Champions League three times in addition to winning the 2010 World Cup.

The question from the Fire’s perspective is if he could justify the high cost he would likely come with. Goalkeepers aren’t often highly paid players in MLS with the way the salary cap works. More flexibility has been added with more and more resources being given to teams from the league, but the cost of a player like Casillas may be difficult to justify at goalkeeper, even if he would provide another marketing and attendance boost like Schweinsteiger did.

This rumor makes for a good headline, but may not have much basis in reality. Still, there's a decent chance Casillas' name will continue to be connected with a move to MLS until he signs his next deal.

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.