Fire

Positive start has put Fire in unfamiliar territory

Positive start has put Fire in unfamiliar territory

The Major League Soccer season isn't a quarter of the way through yet, but early results have the Chicago Fire in contention for a playoff spot.

After going 2-0-1 in a three-game homestand, the Fire have 11 points through six games. That's good for third place in the Eastern Conference.

Plenty can and will change during the 34-game regular season. Seattle was 6-12-2 last season before storming back in the second half of the season and then remaining hot in the playoffs. Still, the Fire had only four points at this stage last season and didn’t reach 11 points until the 12th game of the season.

"We're in good form right now," defender Michael Harrington said. "We're confident. Obviously we're sitting good in the table and that just speaks to the guys who have been on the field doing the business. This is a different team than last year. It's a completely different team so we don't really look at the past results. We look to right now and the way that we're playing."

Four playoff teams from last year, D.C., Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia, are currently out of the top six in the conference. That probably won't last, but it shows how open the race could be. Toronto (1-1-4, 7 points) and Montreal (1-2-3, 6 points) each have played just two of their six matches at home so there is some reason to expect a quick turnaround once that balances out. Meanwhile, Philadelphia (0-4-2, 2 points) is winless and already has some ground to make up.

On the flip side, the Fire are not the only upstart team. Columbus (4-2-1, 13 points) is looking more like the 2015 version that hosted MLS Cup than the 2016 version which missed the playoffs. Expansion team Atlanta (2-2-2, 8 points) has had a solid start despite playing four of its six matches on the road.

With the way MLS goes, the playoff race won't be much clearer until the final few weeks of the season. It does appear, though, that the Fire will be a part of it.

"I think that we can feel and see the confidence all around the team, but we also have to know that we haven't done anything yet," coach Veljko Paunovic said. "It's just started."

The Fire didn't win consecutive MLS games in Paunovic's first year, but have already done so in 2017. Paunovic noticed the difference from a year ago after reflecting upon the 3-0 win against New England last weekend.

"For me it was the first game that I walking in that tunnel after the game and felt 'Wow, we were a great team today,'" Paunovic said on Tuesday. "That's the first time I felt like that, but I still think we can do way better."

If the Fire can continue to play well on this upcoming three-match road trip, it will be a solid statement that the Fire are going to stay in the playoff spots. Toronto hosted MLS Cup last year and still has much of the same talent on the roster. Trips to the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy, both teams that have made the playoffs every year since 2010, follow.

"We need to enjoy these games I think if we want to compete and if we want to be better," forward Nemanja Nikolic said. "Of course this is a new team with new players and the most important thing was to find our style, our identity, what we want to play. I think we can say that we are OK, we are on the beginning of our way.

"Of course with the goals, with the good results, the players are more relaxed on the pitch. These kind of things have led to really good things."

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

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USA TODAY

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.

Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando

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USA TODAY

Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando

For the past two offseasons, Cam Lindley’s name has popped up as a potential key addition for the Fire.

The North Carolina sophomore has been one of the top midfielders in college soccer the past two seasons and has established himself as a good MLS prospect. The Fire held his homegrown rights after he traveled from Indianapolis to play with the Fire’s academy in high school, even helping the U-18 team win the Development Academy national title in 2015.

The Fire failed to sign him last offseason, with Lindley electing to return to college. When the college season ended and negotiations started up again this winter, Lindley turned down the Fire’s homegrown offer. Initially, it was expected that meant he was returning to school, but now Paul Tenorio has reported that the Fire traded Lindley’s homegrown rights to Orlando.


In Tenorio’s reported deal, which he said was still being finalized, the Fire receive right back Rafael Ramos and allocation money from the Lions. The move means Orlando gets the exclusive rights within MLS to negotiate with Lindley and if he signs he will still count as a homegrown for Orlando.

Lindley did not train at all with the Fire in the past year, instead electing to stay in North Carolina when he played in the PDL (a summer league for college players). In 2016, Lindley played with the Fire’s PDL team. The Fire’s three other best homegrown prospects who played in college this past season, Grant Lillard, Andrew Gutman and Mauricio Pineda, all spent some time in training with the Fire in 2017. Pineda stayed after practice multiple times with coach Veljko Paunovic in one-on-one drills. Lillard, the only senior of the four, signed his homegrown deal with the Fire earlier this week.

On the one hand, the Fire get a player in Ramos, who is 23 years old and could help provide depth at both right back and left back. The Portuguese player made 39 MLS appearances in three years with Orlando, including 24 starts in 2015, but injuries contributed to a lack of playing time last season when

Ramos played 55 MLS minutes. A hamstring injury limited him in 2016 and again in the 2017 preseason when he was expected to be the starter at right back. Once he returned, Scott Sutter had established himself at the position.

Ramos vented his frustration at a lack of playing time in an Orlando Sentinel story in October.

On the other hand, Lindley is a player who was racking up the accolades at UNC. As a freshman he tallied seven assists and was named national Freshman of the Year by Top Drawer Soccer and a first team All-ACC pick. This season, he had seven goals and 13 assists and was a first team All-American by United Soccer Coaches, Top Drawer Soccer and College Soccer News in addition to being named ACC Midfielder of the Year. The Tar Heels made it to the College Cup semifinals both years.

The midfielder could be good enough to receive interest from European teams, which could make it good business for the Fire to get something from within MLS for him instead of letting him go for free.

If the trade materializes, it will be a failure on the Fire’s part to convince a talented young player who spent time in the team’s academy to sign, but also a success in getting something of value in return for a player who may not want to sign with the team.