Fire

Statement win: Fire pour it on to knock off defending champ Seattle in front of full house

Statement win: Fire pour it on to knock off defending champ Seattle in front of full house

As far as making a statement, Saturday’s from the Chicago Fire was pretty good.

The Fire thumped the defending champion Seattle Sounders 4-1 in front of an announced sellout crowd and a national TV audience on Saturday.

The Fire (4-3-3, 15 points) scored three second-half goals to pull away from the struggling Sounders (2-4-4, 10 points). Nemanja Nikolic scored a pair of goals and David Accam and Luis Solignac each had one.

The Fire took the lead in the 25th minute following a bizarre sequence. Nemanja Nikolic was awarded a penalty kick after going down in the box even though replays showed that the tackle may have been clean. David Accam's penalty was saved by Stefan Frei, but the ref had it retaken due to both teams having players entering the box early. The second time Nikolic stepped up and scored for his seventh goal of the season.

It didn’t take long for Seattle to answer though. Clint Dempsey was given room from just outside the box and stepped into a wicked left-footed shot three minutes after Nikolic scored.

The Sounders went into halftime with 61 percent of the possession, but things flipped in the second half. Coach Veljko Paunovic moved from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3, moving Dax McCarty directly in front of the two centerbacks to close off the open areas like the one Dempsey scored from.

"From there we took over the possession," Paunovic said of his team, which had 57 percent possession in the second half. "With that change, it helped the team to have the possession, stop their progressions and when we switched to 5-3-2 formation after we scored the second goal I think we definitely took over control of the game and we had a lot of opportunities from the flanks and going from inside out and outside back in and that’s how we scored the rest of the goals. I think the key was taking the possession away from Seattle."

[RELATED: Fire's win against Seattle comes in front of 'best crowd in quite some time’]

Accam gave the Fire the lead an hour into the match, finishing off a pretty combination of dribbling and short passes between Drew Conner, Bastian Schweinsteiger and de Leeuw.

Later in the half, Matt Polster subbed on for his season debut and Jonathan Campbell also entered. The 5-3-2 formation helped the Fire lock things down defensively, as Paunovic noted, and led to goals from Luis Solignac and Nikolic's second three minutes apart.

Nikolic's eight goals tie him with Mike Magee for the most goals in the first 10 games with the Fire.

“It gives us confidence," Schweinsteiger said. "Of course Seattle is a good team. They have very good players. They won last year, but we are more focused on our game style, on our philosophy, what we have.

"We are a very good team when we understand the game, when we are moving, when everyone is giving options and when we close the gaps and make it difficult for the opponent to play so today we made a very good job, especially in the second half. Now we just have to keep going, keep working and take all the confidence what we got today for the next match and maybe play 90 minutes like today (in) the second half.”

The Fire improved to 4-0-1 at home after going winless on a three-game road trip right before this. Paunovic believes the team's improvement has been consistent despite the lack of wins on the road.

"We always say this is the best game, this is the best game so what I’m trying to say is that we can see that there is a consistency and improvement in our team," Paunovic said. "When we play at home that improvement is more evident, but also I think the stretch we had on the road also helped us to forge that mentality and that great improvement we had so far in the season, especially in the last game against LA. Finally we completed a full game with a very consistent performance in both halves, especially in the second one."

Juninho sat out the match due to an ankle sprain. Michael de Leeuw returned to the starting lineup for the first time in three matches.

The Fire play at Toyota Park again on Wednesday, against Colorado.

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.