Fire

With road trip looming, Fire hope to buck league-wide trend

With road trip looming, Fire hope to buck league-wide trend

You don't have to tell the Chicago Fire that it's tough to play on the road in Major League Soccer.

The Fire went winless on the road in 2015 and had a 1-14-2 road record last year. In the first two games away from Toyota Park this season, the Fire played to a 1-1 draw at Columbus and got thumped 4-0 in Atlanta.

With that in mind, the Fire start a three-game road trip Friday at Toronto.

"It's just an hour flight to Toronto. I see just a normal thing," coach Veljko Paunovic said. "Everyone around the world is playing and traveling. I know it's hard and I know it's a long season, but we just started the season actually and we just have to prepare well."

The Fire's recent track record on the road isn't that much of an anomaly around MLS. Road teams are 11-38-18 to start the 2017 MLS season. Both the win percentage (16.4 percent) and the points per game (0.76) are down from last year (18.8 league-wide road win percentage, 0.88 points per game in 2016). Compare that to the top four European leagues (Germany, Spain, England, Italy) where in the current season road teams have a win percentage ranging from 27 percent to 31 percent.

There are plenty of factors that go into why teams struggle away from home in MLS, some of which are not unique to the league or the sport. Obviously, there's the fan support when playing at home, something that has become more prevalent as more teams draw big crowds and have their own stadiums. There's also the travel. MLS teams are traveling bigger distances than many other leagues around the world due to the size of the U.S. and don't have regular chartered flights like other top tier American professional sports leagues. Then there's the parity within MLS. The gap between the top and bottom teams is smaller than in the top European leagues so a factor like playing at home carries more weight.

"There's lots of different things you can say," defender Michael Harrington said. "Obviously the fans give the other team a boost, but I try to look at it as just another game. It's 11 players against 11 players inside the white lines and there's no reason we can't go there and win a game, especially the way that we're playing."

[MORE FIRE: Nemanja Nikolic named MLS Player of the Week]

The Fire are coming off a three-game homestand. During that run of games they picked up two wins and a draw and moved into a playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

Given the numbers and the Fire's recent road record, getting seven points out of a possible nine on the road trip, which also features games at the New York Red Bulls and the LA Galaxy, seems highly unlikely. If the Fire can get three or four points though, that would be a better than average return. If it's less than that, they would be among the majority of MLS teams, which have a good home record and a bad road record.

"I think we need to put the same identity what we make here in Toyota Park on away games," forward Nemanja Nikolic said. "We need to believe that we also can win in away games, not just here in Chicago. This is our first step. We know that the last year the Fire have some problems in away games. We want to change this."

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.