Fire

Fire all-stars have plenty of ties to Real Madrid ahead of MLS All-Star Game

Fire all-stars have plenty of ties to Real Madrid ahead of MLS All-Star Game

Since switching away from the East vs. West format, the MLS All-Star Game has always walked the line between pure entertainment and something resembling a competitive game.

Powerhouse teams from Europe in the middle of their preseason have taken on the MLS All-Stars. While the European visitors aren’t yet going full speed while they gear up for the upcoming season, the MLS All-Stars have something to prove with the pride of their league on the line.

This year, Chicago gets to watch the MLS All-Stars take on Real Madrid, winner of the past two UEFA Champions League titles, Wednesday at Soldier Field.

There’s a strong Chicago Fire contingent on the MLS All-Stars with the Fire coaching staff leading a team that includes four Fire players, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and Dax McCarty. The group had its first training session together Monday at UIC.

“They are all very good players obviously, but also good persons and that makes it even more enjoyable,” Schweinsteiger said. “Of course you need a little bit of time to adjust to everyone to know exactly the passing and how the players want the ball. Every player you can see that is able to play soccer on the highest level and that’s what we need for Wednesday.”

While the players went through Fire coach Veljko Paunovic’s drills on Monday, it was clear training didn’t have the same feel to it as a regular training session for a club team would. The players are simply trying to get to know each other and trying to keep it loose as well.

“It’s fun,” Nikolic said. “It needs to be fun because I think we need to enjoy this moment, but also on the other hand in soccer you can not make the joke from these kind of games. You need to go hard, you need to give your maximum.”

Nikolic played Real Madrid twice in last season’s Champions League when he was still with Legia Warsaw. Nikolic’s Legia side lost in Madrid 5-1 before tying them 3-3 in Poland.

“It was a big experience for me to play in the Santiago Bernabeu,” Nikolic said. “I have a feeling at that time, that they are so good that in every single moment, when they want, they can score goals.”

Schweinsteiger, who is captaining the MLS All-Stars after winning a fan vote, has also had some clashes with Madrid over the years as a player for Bayern Munich. One of his former German national team teammates, Toni Kroos, is currently on Real Madrid.

“I always enjoyed playing against Real Madrid,” Schweinsteiger said. “They were always big matches and I’m looking forward (to the game) of course.”

Paunovic spent much of his playing career for Madrid’s local rival, Atletico Madrid. That rivalry has gained more of an international spotlight recently with the two Madrid clubs meeting in two Champions League finals in the past four years. Real Madrid won both of those, one in penalty kicks and one in extra time.

The ultra-competitive coach wouldn’t talk about the light-hearted aspect of the All-Star Game. He talked about Real Madrid like he will probably talk about the New England Revolution when the Fire turn their attention to that game, which will take place Saturday.

“For us, professionals, there are no exhibitions, no friendly games,” Paunovic said. “We always compete and the first thing that we are competing with is ourselves. When you’re on the field, when you feel the crowd, you feel you’re actually engaged 100 percent and you know you have to perform and you know you have to give your best. That’s the first challenge that you have to face. Then obviously you have an opponent like Real Madrid, there is no other team (like them). There are a lot of great teams in the world, but when you have the opportunity to play against Real Madrid, it’s an occasion that you just cannot let go.”

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

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USA TODAY

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

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USA TODAY

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.