Fire

Fire's next game may be most important for rest of regular season

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USA TODAY

Fire's next game may be most important for rest of regular season

Fresh off a big win against a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference and the Fire now face another. It’s that time of year.

After picking up a crucial win in Montreal last weekend, the mood around the Fire at training this week was decidedly different. The weight of the losing streak had left the team and was replaced by newfound optimism about the stretch run of the regular season.

“It’s always good to get back on the winning side of things,” defender Matt Polster said on Wednesday. “I think now we have to treat every game like it’s a playoff game from here on out because it’s so tight.”

There are seven matches left for the Fire and few will be as big as Saturday’s against the New York Red Bulls. Three teams currently holding playoff spots remain on the Fire’s schedule and two of those are in the Eastern Conference. As far as jockeying for position, it’s this game against the Red Bulls and a Sept. 30 home match against New York City FC that hold the most weight.

The Red Bulls (12-10-4, 40 points) are fifth in the standings, but have at least one game in hand on each of the four teams above, including the Fire (13-9-5, 44 points). The Fire sit third. NYCFC is still a possible, although increasingly unreachable, target in second place, but the Red Bulls are a more imminent threat.

“It will be a tough match,” defender Brandon Vincent said. “The New York Red Bulls, whether it’s playing for playoffs or not, they are a good team. They bring out the high pressure and they’re a tough team to beat so we expect a battle and I think we got enough to compete.”

With both Polster and Vincent returning in Montreal, the Fire do have some reinforcements. However, Bastian Schweinsteiger is listed as out on the injury report after suffering a calf injury in that win in Quebec. Joao Meira is expected to miss his fourth straight game although he did return to the training field this week in a limited capacity.

Dax McCarty is expected to start after rejoining the team in training on Thursday. McCarty was with the U.S. national team for a pair of World Cup qualifiers, but did not see the field. For McCarty, this will mark his second match against his former team since being traded in the offseason. He assisted on the Fire’s only goal in a 2-1 loss in Red Bull Arena on April 29.

New York has its own injury problems with regular starters Aurelien Collin (defender), Mike Grella (midfielder) and Daniel Royer (midfielder) all out.

As always, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic emphasized the importance of the upcoming stretch of games. After hosting the Red Bulls, the Fire host D.C. United next week before two straight on the road at Philadelphia and San Jose.

“Wins like the one in Montreal help us and gives the team the right boost in order to prepare the next two home games that we have,” Paunovic said. “I think Red Bulls is one of the best teams in the league, very experienced in these kind of games and this part of the season.”

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.