Fire

Things are getting tight for the Fire in the Eastern Conference

Things are getting tight for the Fire in the Eastern Conference

It may not be time to start ringing alarm bells, but the Eastern Conference race is not looking as pleasant for the Chicago Fire as it did a few weeks ago.

The Fire lost 3-1 in Columbus on Saturday. It was the Fire's third straight loss on the road.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Toronto FC erupted in the second half for a 4-1 win against Portland. TFC (13-3-8, 47 points) is now six points clear of the second-place Fire (12-6-5, 41 points). On top of that, New York City FC (12-7-4, 40 points) is just one point behind the Fire, and could move into second place with a win at LA later tonight, and the New York Red Bulls (12-9-2, 38 points) beat Orlando to move within three points of the Fire.

While Toronto has appeared to be the class of the league throughout the season and is likely to hold onto the top spot, securing the second spot at the minimum will be important for the Fire. The top two teams in each conference avoid having to play in a first-round playoff game and move straight into the conference semifinals.

Six of the Fire's final 11 regular season games will be at Toyota Park where the team has been unbeatable. The Fire are 10-0-1 at Toyota Park and the first team in the league to reach 10 wins at home.

Next up though is another road game. The Fire head to Montreal, which just beat Philadelphia for a second straight win, on Wednesday. The Impact (8-8-6, 30 points) still have some chasing to do, but are getting back in the playoff race.

After that, the Fire's home record will be put to the test with Toronto coming to town next weekend. A win at Montreal would mean a win against TFC would put the Fire back into a tie for the Supporters' Shield race. On the flipside, if the Fire don't win in Montreal, a Toronto win at Toyota Park could be a near-decisive blow for the Reds in that same race.

The Fire's playoff status isn't in doubt, but its position in the playoffs is. Despite Michael de Leeuw's early goal, his third in six games, the Fire allowed an equalizer five minutes later and couldn't regain the lead in the second half.

The Fire had a majority of the possession throughout the match and finished at 58 percent, but again struggled to create chances in the final third. The Fire had just three shots on target.

Columbus (11-12-2, 35 points) took the lead with a pretty Justin Meram outside-of-the-foot finish in the 73rd minute and the Fire collapsed after. The Crew had more chances for a third goal than the Fire did a second and eventually the third came when Ola Kamara was taken down in the box by goalkeeper Matt Lampson, making his first start in Columbus as an opposing player. Kamara converted the penalty in the 88th minute to essentially end the game.

After a number of injury scares earlier in the week, the only regular to not start was Juninho. Johan Kappelhof and Dax McCarty played the full 90 minutes after being limited in practice this week.

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.