Fire

Fire focusing on mental side in hopes of ending slide

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USA TODAY

Fire focusing on mental side in hopes of ending slide

As the rest of the soccer world closes in on final transfer moves on deadline day, MLS teams have already seen the transfer deadline come and pass.

While teams can still sign free agents until the roster freeze date of Sept. 15, like the Fire did with goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, whatever roster deficiencies teams have they are more or less stuck with through the rest of this season. For the Fire, a collection of players that once looked like one of the best teams in the league has shown plenty of warts in the last several weeks.

The Fire’s two summer additions, Sanchez and defender Christian Dean, have not yet had a positive effect. Sanchez, who was brought in after Jorge Bava went down for the season with elbow surgery, hasn’t made a matchday roster as even the No. 2 goalkeeper yet as he adjusts to the Fire’s system. Dean was brought in to add depth to a position that soon after went through emergency level injuries before Dean became part of the problem with his own injury. The Fire lost all three games Dean played and now he is expected to miss at least the rest of the regular season, if not any postseason run as well.

That means in order to stop the current slide, four straight losses and six out of seven, the Fire will have to look within to turn things around.

“It goes back to the daily work,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have to do our job everyday. We have to get sharp. We have to get strong fitness wise and all that helps so the mentality improves and the confidence, too. We are aware of the situation. The guys are working hard preparing for the next game, next opportunity to fix the things.”

This is where Paunovic seems to be most comfortable. The Serbian coach is always talking about forging a winning attitude and mentality. Now that’s the Fire’s only shot.

“It’s part of the job that I love the most because that’s when the coaches have to step in, take the lead and make the guys understand that they are actually a good team because we are,” Paunovic said. “It’s a part of the work that I love. I cannot say that I’m enjoying, I’m not saying that, but I’m saying that I love the challenge and I’m doing my best to fix the things.”

Just as striker Nemanja Nikolic said he is confident he will get things going again while he is in the middle of an eight-game goalless drought, some of the veteran players on the Fire are saying all the right things about seeing a turnaround happen soon. If the Fire’s slump endures much longer, the team’s once certain playoff spot will start to come into question as the Eastern Conference has proven to be the better of the two conferences in MLS and as the chasing teams are almost all playing well at the moment.

Scenarios like this are why general manager Nelson Rodriguez said it was so important to bring in proven players with winning pedigrees like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho in the offseason. McCarty is away with the U.S. national team for a pair of World Cup qualifiers and Schweinsteiger has shown more frustration with each defeat as he goes through the type of slump he hasn’t endured in his professional career.

“To be honest, we’ve been feeling very sad about it,” Juninho said. “That happens to every single team. You just have to maintain your group of guys ready to go when that type of things happens. I think our group of guys is ready to step forward and to step in in any situation. I think we can do good things in the future.”

Opposing teams have adapted to the Fire's style of play and have been able to punish them for not being able to adapt. Nikolic believes the Fire still have enough to win with this group though.

"It’s also the same team... who was the top on the table a couple of weeks before so we just need to put confidence back, to get that idea, to get that mentality that we had a couple of weeks before," Nikolic said. "The main thing is to believe in the work, in the coach, in the staff, in their idea and all together for sure we will win the games also and hopefully we will be in the playoffs."

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.