Fire

MLS All-Star game is a work in progress

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MLS All-Star game is a work in progress

The Major League Soccer All-Star Game has been a work in progress in the past, and that remains the case this year.

Fan balloting began Friday for the match pitting the MLS squad against UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea on July 25 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. MLS squad selection is a long, confusion process that started with media from around the league determining the top six players on each team.

For the Fire, that meant goalkeeper Sean Johnson, defender Gonzalo Segares, midfielders Sebastian Grazzini, Marco Pappa and Pavel Pardo and forward Dominic Oduro will be on the fans ballot.

Fans can vote through July 2, either through the MLS website or via text messaging or Twitter. Those votes will determine the designated All-Star First XI, with the players announced at the halftime of the Fires home match vs. the Los Angeles Galaxy on July 8.

That wont determine the whole team, though. Ex-Fire captain Peter Nowak, now the coach of the Philadelphia Union, is the coach of the MLS All-Stars this year. He will choose the game day roster and the starting lineup. MLS commissioner Don Garber will also have two picks for selection eligibility to be announced on July 25. The leagues players will also vote for their peers as part of the selection process.

In the end, 32 players will be designated as All-Stars, as per the leagues collective bargaining agreement with its players. Obviously, not all of them will be on the field against Chelsea. Of the Fire nominees, only Pappa has had a taste of All-Star activity. He was a starter in the 2010 match, a 5-2 loss to Manchester United in Houston.

MLS has tried a variety of formats for its version of All-Star weekend. In the leagues first two seasons, 1996 and 1997, teams were chosen by conference with the East meeting the West.

In 1998, when the Fire joined the league, the match pitted MLS players from the United States against those from the rest of the world. That was an interesting concept, but it didnt last long. It was back to East vs. West in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

The 2002 version pitted the MLS All-Stars against the U.S. national team, and just one MLS squad also participated the following year when the opponent was CD Guadalajara, the popular Mexican club known as Chivas.

After another try of East vs. West in 2004, the league opted for the present matchup of one MLS squad facing a notable international club Englands Fulham in 2005, Chelsea in 2006, Celtic FC of Scotland in 2007, Englands West Ham in 2008, Englands Everton in 2009 and Englands Manchester United in both 2010 and 2011.

The two matches with Man-U were the only matches the MLS squad lost during the seven-year run. The 4-2-1 mark compiled by the MLS squad in that period included a 1-0 victory over Chelsea before a sold-out crowd of 21,210 at Toyota Park in 2006. The game has been a sellout every year since 2005.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

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After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

Due to an early playoff exit, the players of the 2017 Chicago Fire have begun to disperse around the country to see family and friends back home during the offseason.

It’s not hard to make an argument that injuries played a significant part in the team’s playoff defeat. Michael de Leeuw went down on Sept. 30 with a torn ACL, Bastian Schweinsteiger played only 19 minutes in the last seven games of the season and Juninho wasn’t quite back to 100 percent when the playoffs rolled around. De Leeuw’s absence especially seemed to change the way the team played.

“Michael is loved by everyone in the locker room,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That’s off the field, but on the field he also put his best always. His quality, his mentality, character, leadership. He’s a winner, he wanted to win. That piece maybe we missed.”

More than five weeks after suffering the knee injury against New York City FC on Sept. 30, de Leeuw had his surgery on Thursday morning. Teenager Djordje Mihailovic suffered an ACL tear in the playoff loss nearly a full month after de Leeuw’s, but still had his surgery a week before the Dutchman.

“It was also my MCL,” de Leeuw said the day before his surgery. “It was a little bit sprained so that’s why they had to wait a little bit longer. Djordje only had his ACL, that’s why he already got surgery. When I saw he already got surgery I was like ‘S***, when is my turn? When can I go to the table?’ My knee is fine. It was a couple weeks longer, but it’s good now. It’s calm.”

De Leeuw said he was “a little bit” nervous going into the surgery because it was his first surgery. He had already been building his muscles, specifically quad strength, in advance of the procedure. The 31-year-old, who shared the team lead in assists with eight, will stay in Chicago for the rehab process.

He is under contract through 2018 with a club option for 2019. When asked about his long-term future, de Leeuw is confident he can return to 100 percent next season.

“I know my body,” he said. “I will be back for sure and I will be back stronger because I can do a lot of stuff in the gym now. That’s one thing I’m sure about. I will be back and I will be back stronger.

“I’m not done with the club and things I want to do here and accomplish here.”

[RELATED: Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason]

His, and Mihailovic’s, absence for the first part of 2018 will also have an impact on how the Fire approach this offseason. De Leeuw established himself as a regular starter and Mihailovic was starting to become a regular in the lineup towards the end of the year, especially after de Leeuw’s injury.

“We, for a while, had believed we had good depth, we had emerging talent on the attacking side,” general manager Nelson Rodriguez said. “We could maybe disproportionately focus our attention in other areas, other lines of play, but we have to be realistic. They each could miss a large portion of the season so we have to reconsider our initial thoughts and revise our plan a little bit. For sure now, I think we’ll need to look to add some attacking piece because that’s a lot of minutes that we planned on that will need to be filled.”