Rodriguez details Fire’s center back, central midfield pursuit


Rodriguez details Fire’s center back, central midfield pursuit

As the Chicago Fire continue to put together the roster for the 2016 season, general manager Nelson Rodriguez continues to give clues as to what to expect the rest of the offseason.

Rodriguez spoke to media via conference call on Tuesday following rounds three and four of the MLS SuperDraft.

Most pressing is the latest on the Fire’s continuing chase for center backs currently based in Europe. Rodriguez said due to the nature of negotiations that talks could continue into early February, after the team’s preseason will already be underway.

“We are competing with the European transfer window and so we understand in certain instances players want to hold out and see what may come across later in the window,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t want to impose an artificial and unnecessary deadline. That said, we can’t afford to allow all of our options to wither away while we wait for someone to make a decision so we juggle that balance on a daily basis.

[SHOP: Gear up, Fire fans!]

“It’s more important that we have them for the bulk of the season and in good form and in good health than have them for the first few days of preseason.”

In addition to Eric Gehrig, who is coming back from a stress fracture in his foot, and recently drafted Jonathan Campbell, Rodriguez said the team is hoping to add three more center backs to the squad.

“We would then consider ourselves well stocked in that position,” Rodriguez said. “We are looking for experience out of the people that we’re bringing in at that position because we see it as an important leadership role within the team on the field of play. The people that we have targeted are those that have a lot of games under their belt in top leagues in top competitions.”

In addition to looking after experienced center backs based in Europe, Rodriguez said that the players the Fire are pursuing will be out of contract by the summer and the team is willing to pay a transfer fee if the club holding a player’s contract requires one. The complication with transfer fees in MLS is that they count against the salary cap in certain circumstances. This is where the allocation money that the Fire acquired on day one of the draft comes into play.

“[The draft day trades] were designed to give us that flexibility, greater flexibility, from the monies that we had already amassed so that we could start to try to change the terms of negotiation and change the tempo of negotiations for the current players that we’re pursuing and also avail ourselves to more resources for a second list of players that we’re looking at to help us in the central midfield roles,” Rodriguez said.

Central midfield is the second priority for the Fire’s offseason, after center back. Rodriguez spoke highly of young players Harry Shipp, Matt Polster and homegrown rookie Drew Conner, but said he wants to add a “veteran presence” to that group. He added that the list of players they are looking at to fill this is internationally based.

The Fire are also in talks with “a couple of guys who have MLS experience,” according to Rodriguez. After signing fullback Michael Harrington from the first-ever MLS free agent pool yesterday, the Fire can sign one more player from that pool as well as any other out of contract league veterans.

[MORE: Fire complete SuperDraft with selections of Keller, Mitchell]

The news of the day started with the Fire drafting Vincent Keller in the third round and Vincent Mitchell in the fourth round to close the draft. While lower round picks typically have a tough time making MLS rosters as rookie, Rodriguez spoke highly of both and said the club now has “some intensity for spots within our training camp.”

Keller is a 5-foot-9 defender from Creighton, originally from Germany.

“Vincent Keller is very intelligent, very competitive, incredibly well spoken,” Rodriguez said. “We believe he can play center back or right back although we’d likely use him more as a right back in principal due to his size, but he’s got a highly competitive nature.”

Mitchell is a 5-foot-8 speedster from Jamaica who could bolster the attack or play wide.

“Vincent Mitchell can play along different spots in the attack,” Rodriguez said. “He has very good pace, a very good nose for goal, ability to beat guys off the dribble. A dynamic that we think we needed to add to the team.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason


Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


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.