Fire

Fire move within one point of MLS' best record after beating Atlanta

Fire move within one point of MLS' best record after beating Atlanta

With each win the Chicago Fire continue to prove that this year’s team is among the league’s best.

The Fire added another win on Saturday, beating Atlanta United FC 2-0. It is the Fire’s sixth straight win at home, improved the team’s record at Toyota Park to 7-0-1 this season and extended the current unbeaten run to eight games.

It also was an important sign of improvement for the team after the Fire (8-3-4, 28 points) were crushed 4-0 at Atlanta (5-6-3, 18 points) back in March, the last game before Bastian Schweinsteiger joined the team.

Both teams had chances in the first half, but the Fire got the first breakthrough. David Accam got behind Atlanta’s defense on a long ball and dribbled around goalkeeper Alec Kann in a scramble situation. Atlanta’s defense got back in position, but Kann was still out of his goal. After a number of dekes and fakes, Accam finally found Luis Solignac, who scored into the open net in the 29th minute.

The Fire played on the counter with Atlanta controlling over 60 percent of the possession. Accam had a number of chances on the counter, but only converted with the assist to Solignac. Nemanja Nikolic also hit the post on a shot in the first half.

"I think we missed a little bit to score one more goal in the first half," Schweinsteiger said. "We had very good opportunities, unfortunately we couldn’t play it out well enough to maybe score a second in the first (half). In the second (half) I think we also had very good situations to score a goal. Other than that we are very pleased with three points."

The Fire added to the lead in the second half when a handball was called in the box following an Accam corner kick. Nemanja Nikolic padded his league-leading goal total (12) by converting the penalty.

The second goal seemed to be the backbreaker for Atlanta, which had been pressing for the equalizing goal, but didn’t create much after going down two goals. Schweinsteiger and coach Veljko Paunovic both admitted it wasn't a pretty win, but it ended up being a fairly comfortable win.

"It was hard, it wasn’t joga bonito, but it was a game to win, and we did,” Paunovic said. “It’s always important to keep the clean sheet and to be the team, especially when you play at home to feel like you’re playing in your fortress. I think right now we kind of have that feeling."

Atlanta started the match without two of its best players. Leading scorer Miguel Almiron came off the bench after playing for Paraguay in a friendly on Thursday. Josef Martinez also returned to action as a sub. The last time Martinez played was against the Fire in March, a game in which he scored two goals.

Dax McCarty was out for the Fire. The key midfielder has been one of the biggest reasons for the team's improvement this season. He is still with the U.S. national team. Juninho started in his place, his first start in over a month.

“The good thing about our roster this year is that we have options," Paunovic said. "We can play different systems, we can play with different formations, different players."

The Fire are now one point behind Toronto FC (8-2-5, 29 points) for the best record in Major League Soccer and have an eight-point cushion ahead of the playoff cutoff in the Eastern Conference. The team already has one more win than all of last year.

“We look good, we look solid, but this is not done," Paunovic said. "Like we always say, we don’t want to constrain now, but we have to be smart in managing the rest of the season."

On Wednesday, the Fire begin play in the U.S. Open Cup with a trip to Saint Louis FC.

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.