Fire

Top 5 Fire offseason storylines to watch

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Top 5 Fire offseason storylines to watch

There are plenty of lists around this time of year, both recapping 2015 and looking ahead to 2016.

Fans of the Chicago Fire may not want to revisit 2015, but there also isn’t enough known about the 2016 version of the club to make a proper look ahead to the season.

[RELATED - Fire GM Rodriguez denies Accam to Stoke rumors]

However, things will take shape quickly since the Fire will report for entrance physicals on Jan. 24 and media day is a day later. Compare that to now when the club has just 15 players under contract and the only player additions the club have made so far are homegrown signings Joey Calistri and Drew Conner, who both seem more likely to go out on loan than regularly crack the starting 11.

All this means that January figures to be a very busy month for general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic in the front office. With that in mind, here’s a list of storylines for Fire fans to follow in next few weeks.

1. Will David Accam jump to Europe?

The Fire winger has been training with Premier League club Stoke City during the MLS offseason and rumors started to spread of a possible move for Accam. Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez shot down those rumors saying, “We’ve had no discussions at all with Stoke or any other team for the transfer of his services.”

Any move would have to wait until after the January transfer window opens in England, but of course that’s not far away now. After leading the Fire with 10 goals in 2015, keeping him at Toyota Park would be a big boost to the 2016 season.

2. What will the Fire do with the No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft?

One of the most important moves in the Fire’s offseason will be what they do with the top pick in the draft on Jan. 14. The Generation adidas class, which is comprised of college early-entrants, has still yet to take shape and a number of the top rated players in the draft are expected to be in that group. Clemson goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell was reportedly the first player to sign a Generation adidas contract, but the Fire likely won’t be looking at a goalkeeper at No. 1.

Georgetown defender Joshua Yaro is a more likely possibility and mock drafts from Ives Galarcep and Top Drawer Soccer have the Fire taking Yaro. The junior has received All-American honors in all three years of college, including being named Top Drawer Soccer’s Player of the Year as a sophomore. He has yet to sign with MLS and could even go abroad.

Rodriguez seemed to imply that the Fire are looking at underclassmen.

“There are several high quality players that we expect to be in the draft,” he said. “We say it that way because the league has not yet announced the signings of certain players, but if those signings occur as we expect than we think there are some really good players at the top end.”

3. Where’s the rest of the team?

After passing in the waiver draft and both stages of the re-entry draft, the only player additions the Fire have made are the two homegrown signings. The Fire are one of eight MLS teams that have yet to add a veteran player in the offseason and only the Philadelphia Union have fewer players under contract (13).

There are many openings to fill, but at least in regards to defenders it appears the team is looking abroad.

“We created a plan for ourselves and have been very disciplined in following that plan,” Rodriguez said. “Part of that plan has as a priority central defense. We did not feel that there were existing available solutions within the league that addressed that priority to the level that we feel we wanted to be satisfied. Our efforts in that regard have focused outside of the league.”

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As for any personnel moves, Rodriguez said movement should start up soon after the New Year.

“We may tend to be more patient, or some might say slower, than other teams, but we accept that as the matter in which we want to conduct our business,” he said. “As we get into the New Year we’ll start to make public some of the transactions that we finalize.”

4. Do the Fire still have a chance to retain Mike Magee?

The 2013 MVP is arguably the prize of the league’s first-ever free agency class and there hasn’t been much news on his new destination. Sporting Kansas City CEO Robb Heineman opened the free agency period by tweeting a recruiting pitch to him and fellow free agent Justin Mapp. Mapp already signed with SKC. Since then, a Yahoo Sports report stated the Fire, SKC, Vancouver and the Los Angeles Galaxy are the four favorites to sign Magee.

5. Will Sean Johnson get another U.S. call-up?

The U.S. Men’s National Team is set for its annual January camp, with games against Iceland and Canada. With MLS in its offseason and most European clubs playing during this period, the team is expected to be largely domestically based. That means Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson should have a decent chance of being called in. In addition, a U-23 group will be called in to prep for that group’s Olympic qualifying playoff in March against Colombia. Fire midfielder Matt Polster figures to be included.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.

Fire add Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai on loan

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AP

Fire add Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai on loan

With the recent trade of David Accam and injuries to two players who logged key minutes last season, the Fire’s attack has looked significantly shorthanded since the start of the preseason. Help is on the way.

The Fire announced a loan move for Serbian midfielder Aleksander Katai on Tuesday. Katai joins from Spanish La Liga club Deportivo Alaves. The loan is through June 30, according to Alaves’ website, although the Fire have an option to buy at the end of the loan.

If the Fire continue to use a 4-2-3-1 formation, Katai can play all three attacking spots in support of Nemanja Nikolic. He typically plays at right wing. In addition to trading Accam, the Fire also traded winger Arturo Alvarez and will be without Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic until around July or August as those two recover from ACL tears.

The short-term loan should at least cover the time until those two start to return, but also allows the Fire some time to evaluate the player before spending a transfer fee to add him permanently.

Katai, whose 27th birthday coincides with the day of the move, played in Serbia and Greece before making the move to Alaves. He joined Alaves in August of 2016 and has made 30 appearances for the club, but just four appearances and no starts this season. A move to the Fire gives him a much better chance at regular playing time, hooks him up with Serbian coach Veljko Paunovic and could potentially increase his chances of making the Serbian World Cup roster. Katai has played six times for Serbia.


The high point of Katai’s career was taking the scoring crown of the Serbian Superliga with Red Star Belgrade in the 2015-16 season when he scored 21 goals. That prompted the move to Alaves the following season, but Katai only scored three goals in 20 La Liga matches that season.

The Fire likely still need more help in the attack or the team will have to trust some young talent to log heavy minutes. Even if Katai plays underneath Nikolic or moves Luis Solignac to that spot, Accam’s vacancy at left wing is still there unless second-year player Daniel Johnson can step in.

Katai will join the Fire in the middle of the preseason. The Fire already beat the University of South Florida, the Fire’s host through this portion of the preseason, 2-0 with goals from Nikolic and third-round pick Elliot Collier. The Fire’s next preseason game is Thursday against Accam’s new team, the Philadelphia Union.