Fire head to Lions' den in meeting of two of Eastern Conference's best

Fire head to Lions' den in meeting of two of Eastern Conference's best

There have not been many big games for the Chicago Fire in the past few years.

The team’s struggles prevented many truly important games in Major League Soccer. This year, though, things have changed.

The Fire have won four in a row and have the second best record in the league. None of the opponents during the Fire's run have been teams in playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but that changes on Sunday.

The Fire (7-3-3, 24 points) head to Orlando (7-5-2, 23 points) in a meeting between two of the top four teams in the conference. The Lions are 6-1-1 at home this season, although they have won just one of the last three in Orlando City Stadium after winning the first five in their new home.

“They’re obviously really good at home so I think we’re expecting them to come out hard the first 10-15 minutes and try and put a lot of pressure on us,” Fire defender Matt Polster said. “I think the goal is to kind of weather the storm a little bit and then after the 15 minutes start to control the pace of the game to what we like and try and take over possession.”

The Fire will be without midfielder Dax McCarty, who is with the national team. Orlando could also be without Brazilian playmaker Kaka. He has been out the past two games due to a calf injury and his status is still unknown, although he did return to training this week.

Whether or not Kaka plays, Cyle Larin will be a key figure for the Fire to watch. Larin has eight goals this season and already 39 in his three-year career.

“He has good hold up play and he can finish,” Polster said. “We just have to limit the chances. They’re good on set pieces so we need to limit those and when he gets near the ball we just need to be a little more tuned in and stop his rhythm a little bit.”

Orlando is coming off a 2-0 win against D.C. United on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Fire had the weekend off after beating FC Dallas on May 25.

Orlando’s win snapped a six-game winless run (two draws, four losses). In that run, Orlando got shut out three times, including a 3-0 loss in Florida to New York City FC.

“They have great support, a great crowd, a new stadium, great atmosphere, but overall they have very good and quality players,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “On our end we believe we have everything what we need to be the good rival and get a win.”

It’s still the first half of the season, but both teams appear to be favorites to make the playoffs at this point. Beating a playoff contender on the road, especially one that has such a strong home record, would be another notch on the Fire’s belt.

“I think this is the first time I can see everyone on the same page,” Paunovic said. “I think the guys are very committed, everyone sees the opportunity to make one of the best seasons for our club in the last many years. We have that great opportunity and we are working towards improving our style overall during the next months.”

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer


Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.

Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando


Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando

For the past two offseasons, Cam Lindley’s name has popped up as a potential key addition for the Fire.

The North Carolina sophomore has been one of the top midfielders in college soccer the past two seasons and has established himself as a good MLS prospect. The Fire held his homegrown rights after he traveled from Indianapolis to play with the Fire’s academy in high school, even helping the U-18 team win the Development Academy national title in 2015.

The Fire failed to sign him last offseason, with Lindley electing to return to college. When the college season ended and negotiations started up again this winter, Lindley turned down the Fire’s homegrown offer. Initially, it was expected that meant he was returning to school, but now Paul Tenorio has reported that the Fire traded Lindley’s homegrown rights to Orlando.

In Tenorio’s reported deal, which he said was still being finalized, the Fire receive right back Rafael Ramos and allocation money from the Lions. The move means Orlando gets the exclusive rights within MLS to negotiate with Lindley and if he signs he will still count as a homegrown for Orlando.

Lindley did not train at all with the Fire in the past year, instead electing to stay in North Carolina when he played in the PDL (a summer league for college players). In 2016, Lindley played with the Fire’s PDL team. The Fire’s three other best homegrown prospects who played in college this past season, Grant Lillard, Andrew Gutman and Mauricio Pineda, all spent some time in training with the Fire in 2017. Pineda stayed after practice multiple times with coach Veljko Paunovic in one-on-one drills. Lillard, the only senior of the four, signed his homegrown deal with the Fire earlier this week.

On the one hand, the Fire get a player in Ramos, who is 23 years old and could help provide depth at both right back and left back. The Portuguese player made 39 MLS appearances in three years with Orlando, including 24 starts in 2015, but injuries contributed to a lack of playing time last season when

Ramos played 55 MLS minutes. A hamstring injury limited him in 2016 and again in the 2017 preseason when he was expected to be the starter at right back. Once he returned, Scott Sutter had established himself at the position.

Ramos vented his frustration at a lack of playing time in an Orlando Sentinel story in October.

On the other hand, Lindley is a player who was racking up the accolades at UNC. As a freshman he tallied seven assists and was named national Freshman of the Year by Top Drawer Soccer and a first team All-ACC pick. This season, he had seven goals and 13 assists and was a first team All-American by United Soccer Coaches, Top Drawer Soccer and College Soccer News in addition to being named ACC Midfielder of the Year. The Tar Heels made it to the College Cup semifinals both years.

The midfielder could be good enough to receive interest from European teams, which could make it good business for the Fire to get something from within MLS for him instead of letting him go for free.

If the trade materializes, it will be a failure on the Fire’s part to convince a talented young player who spent time in the team’s academy to sign, but also a success in getting something of value in return for a player who may not want to sign with the team.