Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez recalls busy offseason


Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez recalls busy offseason

To say it has been a busy offseason for the Chicago Fire is a bit of an understatement.

To call it a rebuild doesn’t even do justice. This has been an entire overhaul for the Fire, not limited to the players on the field.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez was the first one put in place with the task of turning around the Fire, which have made the playoffs just once in the past six years. Rodriguez then picked out coach Veljko Paunovic, who preaches positivity and belief like it’s a religion.

Since those two have been in charge, the roster turnover began. Just 10 players from the 2015 squad remain with the Fire. Still, despite recognizing the need to make drastic changes within the club this offseason, Rodriguez's first impression after he was hired last season was about the fans.

“Surprisingly what resonated with me was how much support remained for the team," Rodriguez said. "We have to be honest, last year was a miserable season with just dire results. Yet even the last game of the regular season we find ourselves down 2-0 to New York Red Bulls, we get a goal back and the fans are just urging us on, completely supportive at all times. You could see the Red Bulls wobble a little bit on the field, which signals to me the strength and the power of our fan base. If we can give them more reason to believe and put results behind it we’re going to have a fantastic home environment.”

[MORE: Fire season opener nears following Season Kickoff Luncheon]

Once Paunovic was in tow, the pair were able to start building their vision of the Fire. Rodriguez said they share a similar view of the game, which made the process much easier.

On the flip side, Rodriguez admitted that scouting and recruitment needs some work. With a focus on acquiring international players — the Fire had just two of eight international spots filled following the trade of Joevin Jones on draft day — that became a very important aspect of the offseason. Finding and bringing in players from various countries and leagues required a slightly different approach.

“Scouting and recruitment is an area that we must improve as a club going forward so this offseason we’ve had to rely on relationships and contacts that we’ve had rather than a proactive approach to scouting and recruitment, which we’ll look to institute as soon as the summer transfer window," Rodriguez said. "We’ve been fortunate in having good people help us identify some people. We’re very methodical and meticulous to our four stages of evaluation because we really want to make sure that the person that we bring in will fit as much or even better than the talent that we bring in.”

Despite the challenge of acquiring international players without a proactive approach to scouting, Rodriguez said the busy offseason went according to plan. The Fire netted Brandon Vincent, a probable starter at left back, Jonathan Campbell, a potential long-term solution at center back, and Alex Morrell, a speedy winger who plays a position of little depth for the team. International players Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Rodrigo Ramos and John Goossens have joined and all figure to see regular playing time.

Rodriguez admits there's more to do and the team is still targeting international players in midfield, but is happy with how things have turned out.

“It’s really gone according to plan," he said. "We’re in the midst of some negotiations that we’re optimistic that we will close positively."

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So now that Sunday's season opener is just days away, making the playoffs remains the first goal. What should fans expect from the team though?

“What I expect and what the fans should demand is effort everyday in every training session and in every game," Rodriguez said. "That’s not to say we won’t have some clunkers along the way. (In a) 34-game season everyone will.

"The character expectation I have is that we will continue to work the same way. We will continue to have a positive attitude, high energy. It’s the environment that Pauno and the coaching staff has created. I expect that to carry us through those difficult moments, but you will have a team on the field that in every game and every instance will look to win. We will play to win.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason


Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.