Fire

What Saturday's win against Vancouver showed about the Fire

What Saturday's win against Vancouver showed about the Fire

The long faces from a few days before were gone. The Chicago Fire got back to business Saturday and showed they are capable of recovering from a setback.

Three days before Saturday’s match against Vancouver, the Fire took a loss for the first time in nearly two months and went all the way to penalty kicks while playing on turf.

Playing on short rest without two regular starters (David Accam and Dax McCarty) and coming off a long game on turf, the Fire picked up another home win and prevented a downward spiral.

It is fitting that the same day that the Fire showed this resilience in the form of a 4-0 win the team moved into the Supporters’ Shield lead after Toronto lost at Dallas.

“I think we shifted very well from the loss that we had,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “For us, it was very important to see it, that it’s possible to recover after 120 minutes and in just a couple of days be ready to perform like we performed today. Fantastic performance, fantastic mood. The mentality was great. That’s how the great teams play, but we still have to work a lot to be a great team.”

Last year, Paunovic would talk about how he believed better things were to come. Now he is trying to keep his team grounded. The Fire haven’t won anything yet this season, although a playoff berth seems nearly certain.

At the start of the season, most Fire fans would have been relatively satisfied with just making the playoffs to break the five-year drought. Hopes and expectations are higher now.

“I’m going to be the party breaker now and I want to stop the euphoria because I think it’s important to know that we still haven’t done anything,” Paunovic said. “It’s great to hear that our stats are improving... but we have to know that this is still half of the season, a long way to go.”

Throughout an MLS schedule there are plenty of games that can be explained with an asterisk of external factors altering a result. That could be a key player out of the lineup for injury, suspension or international duty. It could be short rest with cross-country travel. The Fire had all of that going against them on Saturday and beat a respectable Vancouver team by four goals and led by three goals inside 25 minutes.

“The main focus (Saturday) was just to make sure that we didn’t have any excuses in terms of playing a game Wednesday and going 120 minutes,” said midfielder Arturo Alvarez, who scored the third goal of the match. “It’s part of the profession. We got to make sure that we prepare ourselves for this game.”

The Fire now enter into what could be the toughest stretch of games on the entire schedule. Next is another midweek game at Portland with McCarty still with the national team and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s availability in question after he left Saturday’s game in the first half with an injury. Accam could return from playing with Ghana, but he sat out the last two games the Fire played on turf.

After that, the Fire will go on break while the Gold Cup begins and return with back-to-back road games at New York City FC, which has the third-best record in MLS, and Sporting Kansas City, which leads the Western Conference. Counting Portland, those three teams have a combined two losses in 27 home games this season.

Those games will be tough, but even if the Fire struggle in the rest of July, the team showed against Vancouver that it can respond well to adversity.

“That’s big, the reaction,” forward Michael de Leeuw said. “Because you know in the back of your head you know you played 120 minutes. You lost on penalties, that’s also mentally (tough). If you see how quick we scored the goals and we ended their chance to win because we were so dominant on the field. We were winning duels, creating a lot of chances. I think they also thought like OK, they played Wednesday 120 minutes and right away we killed them. That was a good feeling for us.”

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.