Fire

MLS SuperDraft may be fading in talent, but remains essential

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MLS SuperDraft may be fading in talent, but remains essential

After a lack of news and announcements from the Chicago Fire, things sure picked up this week and the source of that was the MLS SuperDraft.

It is easy to argue that the draft has lost some of its luster since the homegrown player rule has changed the landscape of the draft. More and more teams are developing more and more players through their academy systems, which is syphoning top talent from the draft.

In December, the Fire signed two homegrown players in Northwestern forward Joey Calistri and Wisconsin midfielder Drew Conner. (For the record, TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Travis Clark said Calistri and Conner would both probably slide in as third or fourth round picks in this draft had they not signed homegrown deals with the Fire.) According to MLSsoccer.com’s offseason tracker 16 players have already been signed as homegrown players this offseason, and that doesn’t even include Hermann Trophy winner and U.S. Men’s National Team player Jordan Morris, who is mulling signing with Seattle as a homegrown or signing with a European team.

[MORE FIRE: Fire draft day wrap - Jones, No. 1 pick traded for 3 rookies, allocation money]

With so many quality names missing from the draft class, it becomes tougher and tougher to find good talent.

“Approached the right way it can provide a valuable asset or two,” Clark said of the draft. “That said, of the 80 players that are going to get picked I can’t imagine more than 15 or 20 at the very highest will still be on an MLS roster a year from now, and it could be lower than that. It’s a little bit of mixed bag and obviously you have the homegrown program that sheers down the number of kids, you have kids that skip college altogether or go to Europe.”

It’s hard to say that the quality of the talent pool in the draft hasn’t lessened in recent years, but that doesn’t mean the draft doesn’t still serve a different purpose. That purpose is to create buzz about a league during its offseason.

That point wasn’t lost on Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez as he explained during his conference call with the media on Tuesday. He noted that the MLS season ended in early December and the league basically goes dark until draft time.

“The SuperDraft itself is, almost on a yearly basis, the No. 1 traffic day of the year on MLSsoccer.com,” Rodriguez said. “One need only look at the NFL and the NBA and what they’ve done with their drafts and how that hype keeps those leagues relevant and consumer friendly at a time that their sports aren’t being played. It’s amazing to me. There’s a place and a need for the combine and a place and a need for the SuperDraft and I see that for the foreseeable future.”\

[SHOP: Gear up, Fire fans!]

So while the MLS SuperDraft may be dwindling in terms of relevance on the field, its relevance off it remains. In addition, Rodriguez spoke of the hope a new, young player gives to a franchise and its fan base.

“I believe the draft in any sports league provides something that is critical to every fan of every team and that’s hope,” he said. “The draft pick, whether the first person chosen or the last person chosen, represents hope to a fan base and to a front office staff. The hope that the player selected will prove to be an instrumental contributor or even a difference maker to the present and future of the team.”

Each offseason, baseball fans flock to media outlets for the latest gossip coming from the Winter Meetings. The start of the NBA free agency period has become a frenzied period of news and rumors. The NFL Draft is a key three-day cog in the league’s year-round hype machine and gets fans excited about the upcoming season nearly five months before it starts.

Even if the three players the Fire drafted on Thursday don’t turn into stars, or even solid contributors, Chicago soccer fans were given a day to think about soccer even when all they see outside their windows is a thick, cold layer of snow on the ground. That’s not such a bad thing.

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.