Fire

GM Nelson Rodriguez says Fire is "not good enough yet"

GM Nelson Rodriguez says Fire is "not good enough yet"

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez has been quotable since he took over the role in October.

That's why when he hosted media in person at Toyota Park and over the phone via conference call on Friday it was an event worth following for fans of the club.

Friday's event didn't come at a good juncture for the club. The Fire are in the middle of a three-match losing streak and are dead last in Major League Soccer with one win in 10 matches.

Before taking questions for what was just over an hour, Rodriguez opened with a statement that was nearly 10 minutes long and touched on the recent struggles.

“I think it would be disingenuous for me to begin today in any other place other than acknowledging our record," Rodriguez said. " The results are obviously not as we expected. Simply, it’s not good enough, yet. For me, that’s the key word (yet).

"Winning and losing is the ultimate measure of sports, but it’s not the only way to gauge progress. It’s my job to see beyond the results, to see beyond wins and losses, to ensure that the foundation that we are building and the process that we are following is on track. And I can’t stress that enough because sometimes you can be on a winning streak and believe that everything is fine when it really isn’t, when the foundation is actually faulty. I need to ensure that we’re disciplined in our approach. I didn’t expect to be here, although we knew that there would be a point in time during the course of the year where results would not go our way. It’s one of the things I spoke to (coach Veljko Paunovic) about before the season even started, that how we handle those moments are going to be the real indicators of the type of team that we will become."

In addition to addressing the poor start, Rodriguez expanded upon what the team has done well in addition to what it hasn't.

"I believe we are learning how to compete on a daily basis," Rodriguez said. "We have not made other teams suffer during the course of games, but we have not been an easy out. There’s only been 22 minutes the entire season that we’ve been down by two goals... so that also tells me that we’re right there. We need to learn how to make a play."

Fans who have suffered through just one playoff appearance and no playoff victories in the past six seasons likely don't want to hear things about the team being close. Rodriguez acknowledged that, but did not shy away from the fact that he is balancing winning now while trying to build the team in a longer-term view.

“We owe our fans and we owe ourselves to try to win now," Rodriguez said. "We define competitiveness as relentless in the pursuit of victory, at all times, but not at all costs. So that balance is my job. It’s not Pauno’s job. Pauno’s job is three points on Saturday. He’s very clear about that and he understands that. It’s my job to ensure that what we build is sustainable and that’s the part of the future that I try to keep in mind. It's not to construct something for a fleeting moment of success."

One of the moves that Rodriguez said will help in both of those areas is the recent signing of Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw. de Leeuw is 29 and scored 56 goals in the past five seasons in the Dutch Eredivisie. That makes him both young enough to be in his prime for at least three more years and accomplished enough to, at least on paper, step in right away and be a key contributor.

de Leeuw has already signed his contract and Rodriguez said they've already begun the visa process, which delayed the debuts of John Goossens and Khaly Thiam this season. He is expected to join the Fire in early June for training and can debut after the MLS' second transfer window opens on July 4.

With de Leeuw coming and Thiam having just joined the team, Rodriguez expects to be quiet in the summer window. Instead, he said the club is already formulating a plan for next January. One of Rodriguez's stated goals has been to improve the team's scouting. He said that is still in progress, but they are using the extra time to plan for January and be properly prepared.

“First it’s with identifying targets," Rodriguez said. "Who are the players that we see or that are recommended to us that as players seem to suggest the characteristics that we’re looking for. Once we have that list, now it’s about going and seeing them in their environment... That’s the type of work that we’re trying to do so that when the leagues around the world resume in August and September, we’re in their backyard studying the players as players and learning them as people first hand.”

Despite already looking past this season in his plan for the club, Rodriguez said his goals for this season have not changed, even as a playoff spot seems to be falling out of reach early in the season.

“My expectations remain the same," he said. "My expectations are that when we hit October, we are competing for a playoff spot. That we are playing meaningful games in October."

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

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.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.