Veljko Paunovic: U.S. Open Cup is important to the history of our club

Veljko Paunovic: U.S. Open Cup is important to the history of our club

Cup competitions are tricky for a number of reasons.

The added schedule congestion, opponents from different leagues and the typically smaller crowds all factor into the decision of how much a team will invest in its domestic cup competition.

For the Chicago Fire, things are a bit different. The club has won the U.S. Open Cup four times, matched only by the Seattle Sounders among MLS teams, and the tournament has become a point of pride within the organization and the fanbase.

With that in mind, the Fire start the tournament Wednesday against Indy Eleven at Toyota Park. Coach Veljko Paunovic is well aware of the importance of the U.S. Open Cup and tried to impart that to his players.

“Last week we had a presentation from Logan (Pause), who won this title two times,” Paunovic said of his assistant coach during a conference call on Monday. “He gave this speech to our guys.

“He explained how important it is for the history of our club and also for our fans and for everyone. It was a great experience and I believe we are doing all we can in order to make our players understand how important for us this competition is, but also how important it is to respect our rivals.”

Michael Harrington, who won the U.S. Open Cup in 2012 with Sporting Kansas City, and Johan Kappelhof, who won the Dutch KNVB Cup with FC Groningen in 2015, also spoke about the importance of cup competitions.

“It’s pretty much the same in every single league that I played,” Paunovic said. “Always the cup competitions are very, very tricky.”

Indy Eleven plays in the second tier North American Soccer League, but is fresh off winning the league’s spring title. Indy went 4-0-6 in the league’s first of two split seasons and won the title on the final match. They matched the New York Cosmos (6-4) with 18 points, a plus-seven goal differential and 15 goals scored. The third tiebreaker, head-to-head, gave Indy the title.

The matchup on Wednesday also has the added rivalry spark of featuring two Midwest teams. Lovel Palmer and Jon Busch currently play for Indy Eleven after playing for the Fire last season.

“We know that they have a lot of experienced guys who played also in MLS,” Paunovic said. “We know that they have a lot of players who played on our team in the years before.”

Paunovic hinted that he may rotate the lineup a bit, but still emphasized fielding a strong team. Though the Fire are well-rested after going on break for the Copa America Centenario, the team also plays Saturday at Colorado and a week from Wednesday at Philadelphia to make for another stretch of three games in eight days.

On the injury front, John Goossens (knee) and Collin Fernandez (ankle) are still expected to be out for the next couple games. Joao Meira had a minor shoulder injury, but Paunovic said he could be available Wednesday.

Paunovic also said there is no change in Gilberto’s status and he will not be available Wednesday.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason


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


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.