Fire

Still streaking: Fire beat Dallas for fourth straight win

Still streaking: Fire beat Dallas for fourth straight win

The tough test the Chicago Fire was supposed to receive Thursday didn’t exactly materialize the way it looked on paper, but the Fire still picked up a fourth straight win.

The Fire were leading after a frantic first 10 minutes and rode out a subdued second half to pick up a 2-1 win against an FC Dallas team, which sat six players who have started a majority of the team’s matches.

Nemanja Nikolic scored his 11th goal of the season, adding to his league lead, and it took less than three minutes to get it. Nikolic redirected Brandon Vincent’s cross from the left into the far post for an early Fire lead.

Dallas (5-2-4, 19 points) responded in the sixth minute. Joao Meira scuffed a clearance and then Johan Kappelhof’s attempted clearance was blocked right into the path of Roland Lamah, who tapped the ball in.

The crazy start continued with David Accam cutting in on his right foot from the left wing and scoring with a shot from outside the box to give the Fire (7-3-3, 24 points) the lead again. The ball skipped under the arms of Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz. Accam became the first Fire player to score in five straight games.

After that wild start neither team managed a shot on target until Juninho fired a shot at Seitz in the 89th minute. Nikolic had a penalty kick saved in the final minute of added time.

“From what I’ve heard this team had a long way to go in the leadership and maturity department and that’s how you get results in MLS," midfielder Dax McCarty said. "It’s not about always skill, it’s not always about who’s got the best players. Sometimes it’s just about grinding it out. Sometimes it’s about being mature and being professional and seeing games out that aren’t easy to win and this is the toughest game in this stretch and that’s not an easy game to win.”

With another game against Houston on Sunday, Dallas manager Oscar Pareja elected to sit a number of regulars. Kellyn Acosta, Walker Zimmerman and leading goal-scorer Maxi Urruti are among Dallas’ best players and were not included in the Dallas matchday roster. Michael Barrios, Maynor Figueroa and Hernan Grana also have started a majority of Dallas’ matches this season and did not start on Thursday. Barrios did enter in the 74th minute.

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said he expected some rotations in Dallas' lineup after looking at the team's schedule.

"Maybe not so many, but I think with so many rotations actually what they achieved is to be fresher than we were," Paunovic said. "That was very important after the first 30 minutes of the game when we obviously we dropped a little bit in our intensity, in our freshness. Then in that moment what stepped up was our character, managing the game, finishing the first half well, then adjusting.

“We were tested in a different way and we saw the different face of our team that is capable with these kind of situations.”

McCarty said even playing with a rotated lineup, Dallas is still a "well-coached, organized" team.

"It could be really easy for us to look at their lineup and say, 'Hey this is going to be an easy night,'" McCarty said. "I think we have the maturity now in this locker room that in reality when you play a team with players that haven’t played as much they’re going to be hungrier and it’s even going to be a harder game. So for me this was the hardest game we played in this four-game stretch by far."

In March, McCarty was talking about how the Fire had a long way to go. After this win, he said things are better, but there is still more improvement needed.

"I think the main difference that this team is playing with a lot of confidence," McCarty said. "I think what happens when you get a couple results in a row, the belief just grows even more. So now instead of thinking, 'Hey we might be able to make the playoffs,' the belief turns into, 'Hey, we might be able to do something special this year.' We might be able to start thinking about winning some trophies, being a championship team.

“This is the evolution of going from a bad team to becoming a great team. We’re not there yet, but we’re somewhere in the middle.”

The Fire now have the second-best record in MLS after finishing a stretch of four games in 13 days with a 4-0 record. It was the first time the Fire have won four games in a row since 2012. The Fire have not won five in a row since the league abandoned the old shootout and allowed ties.

Last year the Fire won seven matches. This team has done so in 13 games. The Fire also matched the best start in club history through 13 games, equaling 1998 and 2001.

The Fire next play June 4 at Orlando.

What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

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USA TODAY

What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

For much of this winter, it appeared the Fire would enter 2018 with much of the same team that had the third best record in the league in 2017.

There were only minor surprises when the team announced which options it picked up and which players were cut loose. Homegrown signing Grant Lillard was the first addition of the offseason on Jan. 10 and that was expected after he completed his college career.

However, Nelson Rodriguez was apparently busy in the week leading up to the draft and saw that work turned into three trades on Friday. The Fire got two picks in the top 10 and sent away two starters from last year, including key winger David Accam.

There were already holes to fill on the roster, but the exits of Accam and goalkeeper Matt Lampson mean there are a couple more position needs with training camp starting on Monday.

“The roster is very much incomplete,” Rodriguez said after the draft. “There’s still quite a bit of work left to do. While it’s ideal to go into training camp with something that more closely resembles the roster that you’re looking to get into the season with. In our case, it is more important that we continue to add pieces that we think fit our style, fit our mentality, fit our philosophy and it’s important now that we remain disciplined in that pursuit and not feel pressure to just close the deal.”

A look at a potential starting lineup based on the current roster isn’t by any means bad, but it does need some improvement to match or improve upon last year.

Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty again give the Fire an elite central midfield pairing, Nemanja Nikolic is back after winning the Golden Boot in his first year and the defense should be somewhat solid depending on how Lillard and Jonathan Campbell fill in for the departed Joao Meira. However, goalkeeper is a question mark with Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland having two MLS appearances between them and Nikolic needs help in the attack with Accam and Arturo Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic expected to be out until at least July while recovering from torn ACLs.

Seeing Accam leave seemed like an inevitability at some point after years of rumors and complaints. Now that it’s a reality, it’s up to Rodriguez and the Fire to deliver an attack that can be productive without him after he had 14 goals and eight assists last year.

Second-year player Daniel Johnson is the immediate fill-in for Accam. He showed flashes of his potential last year as a rookie, but was limited to 125 after dealing with multiple injuries in 2017. Jon Bakero has the ability to step in underneath Nikolic, but that is an important role to throw at a rookie. The Fire’s dip at the end of last season coincided with de Leeuw’s injury so getting production out of that spot will be important.

The Fire could probably do just fine with one of Johnson or Bakero playing significant minutes in the first half of the season, but both? That’s asking an awful lot out of inexperienced players and it’s why the attack is likely where other moves will come.

Rodriguez said after the draft that there had been more trades in the works and some may still happen.

“We were very aggressive in Florida and here in Philadelphia in trying to make trades within the league and we were unsuccessful,” he said. “Some of those opportunities were by design, by our pursuit. There are still some opportunities which we wish to continue exploring and we will continue to make efforts.”

Rodriguez said the Accam trade gave the team “a lot of flexibility.” The allocation money gives the Fire an expanded salary cap of sorts to work with. Rodriguez said it “further opens up targets in the league” and he also added that they have specific players in mind.

“We also have three targets in particular outside of MLS,” he said. “I would say it’s possible given our current stated resources, our salary budget against the cap, it’s possible to potentially add two of those. Again, those are international deals. You first have to get the deal done before you can worry about the salary budget implications, but we will continue to be deliberate in our actions and disciplined in our attention.”

The Fire's roster is at 21, with two of those going to miss half the season due to injury, after finishing last season with 30.

Fire stay busy on draft day, trade David Accam to Philadelphia

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USA TODAY

Fire stay busy on draft day, trade David Accam to Philadelphia

The dominoes continue to fall on the Fire's offseason, and seem to be doing so at an increasing pace.

After making two trades on draft day, the blockbuster move of the day broke after the first round completed. As first reported by Paul Tenorio and later announced at the draft, the Fire traded winger David Accam to Philadelphia for $300,000 in General Allocation Money and $900,000 in Targeted Allocation Money. The $1.2 million total is among the biggest allocation money trades in league history.

The move will have major implications on 2018 due to Accam's production since joining the Fire in 2015, but also because it likely is a move to set up other moves. Accam had his best year with the Fire in 2017 with 14 goals and eight assists while only making 24 starts (30 appearances in total).

"David had three very strong years for us and as we move forward though, we thought this would help," general manager Nelson Rodriguez said after the draft.

However, he had voiced his displeasure about being left off the All-Star Game roster by coach Veljko Paunovic, saying he was "disappointed my coach ignored me." Accam seemed to be appeased when the Fire picked up his option for 2018 in August. With his contract situation somewhat more sorted out, it appeared Accam may still have a future with the Fire despite having previously stated a desire to return to Europe at some point in his career.

Despite that history, Rodriguez said the Fire did not initiate talks for the trade.

"David never asked to leave," Rodriguez said. "I think he was surprised by the trade, but you’d have to ask him. It came together over the past week while we were in Florida for the combine and Philadelphia for the draft. The Union was aggressive in its bid and its intention.”

Rodriguez admitted to interest in Accam both from abroad and within MLS in the past. He explained the timing of why the trade was made now and other offers were turned down in the past.

“This was the most attractive offer we had in this window," Rodriguez said. "Circumstances change. We’re different today than we were in August when there were some other offers from overseas clubs. We just felt that this was an opportunity for us to try to advance our championship program in a different way and we thought it was a fair deal for both parties.”

While the move is a big one for Philadelphia in getting a player like Accam, the Fire likely aren't done. This is typically not the type of move that is made without another move in mind. Juan Quintero rumors continue to float around with the Fire and Argentine club River Plate both being mentioned as possible landing places for the Colombian international who has scored at a World Cup.

With Accam leaving, the Fire have an open spot for a Designated Player. Nemanja Nikolic and the recently re-signed Bastian Schweinsteiger are the two DPs on the roster.