Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Richard Sanchez's first start, Djordje Mihailovic's first goal

Notes from the rewatch: Richard Sanchez's first start, Djordje Mihailovic's first goal

On paper, Wednesday's game in San Jose was going to be very hard for the Fire.

The team was coming off a bad road loss in Philadelphia three days earlier and rotated a lot of the starting lineup with a big game coming up against New York City FC. The Fire delivered one of the best performances of the season and two of the key performers were not regular starters.

Richard Sanchez made eight saves in his first Fire appearance and Djordje Mihailovic scored his first MLS goal to give the Fire an early lead. How good were the two young players?

Sanchez's oddly busy first start

The score said 4-1 and it was 4-0 until the final minutes of the game, but Sanchez was very busy between the posts in San Jose. He had to make eight saves, the most for a Fire goalkeeper since Matt Lampson made nine saves in Vancouver on May 11, 2016.

Sanchez had one tough save to make in the first half, a hammered free kick by Danny Hoesen that was right at Sanchez. He held his ground and did well to not give up a rebound on that, instead blocking it away from danger.

In the second half, after the Fire took a 3-0 lead in the 48th minute, San Jose put an onslaught on the Fire's goal. San Jose had 12 shots in the second half, 10 of which came in the final 25 minutes. This save below was Sanchez's best highlight.

The ball appeared to have smacked off his face, but it's his positioning that deserves credit. He was in the right spot and made himself big so he didn't have to make a reaction save. He was already where the ball was most likely to wind up.

Sanchez didn't show anything notable, good or bad, in his distribution. He came out well for crosses on occasion, although he did fail to get a strong fist to a corner he attempted to clear in the 70th minute. Overall, it was a strong first start for the 23-year-old, one worthy of starting a legitimate goalkeeper battle with Lampson.

Strange final numbers

As mentioned, the Fire dropped back with a three-goal lead early in the second half and allowed San Jose to dictate play. The Earthquakes ended up creating a lot of opportunities and on another day could have been in this match. The Fire dominated the first half and deserved to have a two-goal lead at the break, but a pair of mistakes by San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell made the game a blowout.

While Sanchez was having a solid game, Tarbell turned the ball over deep in his own end with a bad pass that led to the third goal. On the fourth goal, he came off his line to challenge Michael de Leeuw on a breakaway. De Leeuw chipped Tarbell, who froze on the shot. Nemanja Nikolic, like any good goal poacher, continued to chase after the shot and won the race for the rebound after the chip hit the bar and bounced back into play. A goalkeeper who can use his hands to punch away a ball should never lose a race to a ball with a player forced to used his head.

The Fire probably don't drop as deep without that third goal and maybe they can maintain the pressure of the first half, but it's reasonable to think that without Tarbell's two mistakes the game could have had a very close finish. San Jose outshot the Fire 20-14, although the Fire maintained a 10-9 edge in shots on target, and nearly got possession back to 50-50 after the Fire controlled the first half. It's crazy to think a three-goal game was decided by the goalkeepers, but Tarbell cost his team two goals and Sanchez might have saved the Fire one.

Mihailovic's positive performance in a new role

The Fire's teenage homegrown player had three MLS starts before Wednesday. All of them were in attacking roles, either centrally or out wide. In San Jose, Mihailovic played as one of the deep midfielders alongside Dax McCarty.

When Mihailovic had played in attacking midfield spots, he tended to get lost in the game. Maybe he didn't know where to be or maybe he was failing to be assertive enough to get involved. Either way, that wasn't a problem in the deeper role on Wednesday.

His skillset has led many to believe that he is somewhat of a classic playmaker, but he also seems to have the profile of a deeper midfielder. For one, his pressing ability is among the best on the team. That has shown whenever he is on the field. It's not traditional defensive play that is needed as a defensive midfielder, but it can be enough when a veteran like McCarty is next to him. He also is smooth enough on the ball to not turn the ball over too many times in traffic, something that Drew Conner struggled with the previous two games.

Mihailovic still made some mistakes, one turnover in the 32nd minute which resulted in San Jose getting a free kick just outside the box. He also showed good connecting play going forward. Check out this give-and-go with Nikolic.

Mihailovic completed 56 out of 64 passes, including 39 out of 42 in the first half, and scored his first MLS goal.

Here's a deeper look at his goal, which featured a nice job of filling the space up top as de Leeuw dropped deep to play a pass.

A goal worth a special mention

The Fire have had a few goals with extended strings of passes this season and added another Wednesday. The second goal was a 17-pass sequence that resulted in a crazy volley cross assist from de Leeuw.

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.