Fire

How the Fire found David Arshakyan from a small club in Lithuania

How the Fire found David Arshakyan from a small club in Lithuania

It’s been an eventful past few weeks for new Chicago Fire forward David Arshakyan.

The 22-year-old Armenian signed with the Fire from FK Trakai in Lithuania just before Major League Soccer’s summer transfer window closed in early August. Upon receiving his visa and coming stateside, Arshakyan made his Fire debut off the bench Aug. 27 at D.C. United.

Just eight days after debuting for his new club, Arshakyan debuted for his country. He started in Armenia’s 1-0 loss at Denmark to kick off World Cup qualifying, which was his first senior national team cap after previously playing for the youth sides.

“First I’m happy to make a debut, but unfortunately we lost this game against Denmark,” Arshakyan said. “That’s a good experience for me.”

By leaving to play for the national team so soon after joining the Fire, Arshakyan still has not had much of a chance to settle in off the field. He’s with a new club in a new league in a country he had never been in before. That does not make for a quick transition.

“To be honest it’s not easy because it’s my first time in America so I have to get used to it,” he said. “For this weather, for these people. I think I need just more time and maybe after one, two weeks it will be easier.”

One thing he won’t have to worry about is a language barrier. Arshakyan, who was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, is fluent and seemingly comfortable in English.

As for his knowledge of the league, Arshakyan said he had been hearing about MLS the past couple of years.

“In Russia everybody knows it’s developing very fast,” Arshakyan said. “I know that many famous players are playing here from famous teams like Drogba, Gerrard, Lampard, Pirlo. So for me this league is a big opportunity to grow as a football player, to grow up and show that I am ready to play in big football.”

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Arshakyan’s background is not common for MLS players. Real Salt Lake’s Yura Movsisyan is the only other Armenian playing in MLS. On top of that Arshakyan was playing in Lithuania, which is not typically on the radar for MLS clubs.

However, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic was able to spot Arshakyan. Paunovic noticed the 6-foot-4 forward through, as he put it, “the daily work that you have to do” of checking other leagues and other players.

“I saw a couple of games that he played,” Paunovic said. “I found him very interesting in terms of his soccer qualities. Of course the profile he has, a big guy who can keep the ball, who can score goals, which is most important for a striker. The profile is something what we need.”

Paunovic said Arshakyan’s skillset and his numbers for FK Trakai, 34 goals in 52 Lithuanian A Lyga matches, made him worth pursuing.

“We started to follow him,” Paunovic said. “He played very good and (later) we contacted him and contacted the club and the agent so everything went well.”

After Arshakyan’s acquisition was made official, general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave Paunovic “100 percent of the credit” on finding Arshakyan.

“I don’t even know how to quantify the number of games and the number of countries that Pauno watches over the course of a week, less over the course of a month or the course of a year,” Rodriguez said on Aug. 4. “He started to look in other leagues that he thought players could easily adapt from and towards our league. In doing that he found David. He started to watch video, he made calls to connections of people that he has in that part of the world. We had David scouted in person in his last game where he scored a hat trick.”

It makes sense for a coach to watch other leagues in search of talent to bring into the team, but Lithuania? Lithuania has the 48th-highest UEFA coefficient out of 54 counties. The UEFA coefficient is used to allocate spots in European club competitions and is the closest thing to a league ranking system. In other words, it’s not the first place most would look.

“Honestly, we are checking everything,” Paunovic said. “It always comes from you have to look for international level players. He has been playing for the national team, under-21 before that, now with the national team with the senior team.”

Now, Fire fans will have to see what Arshakyan can do in MLS. He rejoined the Fire in training this week after his stint with Armenia.

“I have to score goals,” Arshakyan said. “I have to create chances. That’s my role.”

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.