Fire

More money in salary cap means more opportunities for success and failure in MLS

accam-dax-tam.jpg
USA TODAY

More money in salary cap means more opportunities for success and failure in MLS

Major League Soccer’s salary cap rules have never been for the faint of heart. So when a new league rule that could significantly change the short-term future of the league is announced, it’s time for any fan to decide it they want the blue pill (the story ends and you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe, a la The Matrix) or take the red pill (stay in Wonderland and see how deep the rabbit hole goes).

Anyone reading on should accept that this path is the red pill, meaning they are willing to accept the long-winded version of the consequences of MLS’ announced expansion of Targeted Allocation Money for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The league announced the added funds, which work as a way to expand the cap and make it a soft salary cap and add flexibility to general managers around the league.

In addition to the $1.2 million of TAM that was already budgeted, the league is giving teams an additional $2.8 million to spend. According to the league’s press release, “this injection should increase a team’s ability to build their rosters with increased flexibility and help add high-quality players outside of their Designated Player spots.”

As simply as possible, TAM is a resource that allows teams to minimize the hit on the salary cap a player that makes more than the maximum budget charge (this was $480,625 in 2017), but less than $1.5 million. However, this isn’t just ordinary TAM. It’s being given out on a discretionary basis (this is where seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes begins to apply).

Salary cap nerd and NBC Sports Chicago’s Fire sideline reporter Paul Tenorio explained what he thinks the new funds give teams in a periscope that can be seen here. His belief, which in this case is likely correct, is that it will further separate the gap between teams and owners willing to spend money and those that are hesitant to open up the wallet.

So what does that mean for the Fire?

In recent years the Fire had been stringent with payroll, but in 2017 the team ranked fourth in the league. If the Fire want to spend more money it would be a way to add more flexibility to the roster and add more pieces to what appeared to be a solid foundation. If the team becomes tight with finances again, then the competition has more of an opportunity to gain an advantage and add quality players with the added salary cap room.

These rules would allow a player like David Accam to no longer take up a designated player spot and give the Fire an opportunity to add another high-level salary player to go with Bastian Schweinsteiger (who is still out of contract) and Nemanja Nikolic.

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez complained about the fact that MLS teams did not know how much TAM they would have to work with this offseason. This announcement comes after teams (other than MLS Cup participants Toronto and Seattle) already had to decide on which options they picked up or declined. Rodriguez and his counterparts now know how much money they are allowed under the cap. It's up to the various ownership groups to allow that money to be spent.

The implications of this additional financial flexibility will play out over the course of this offseason and into the season itself, but until then the rest of us can only speculate how it will be used. At the minimum, it gives teams in the league the ability to spend more on players, which should in theory add to the quality of the talent on rosters.

Nemanja Nikolic earns MLS Best XI nod

niko-best-xi.jpg
USA TODAY

Nemanja Nikolic earns MLS Best XI nod

After being shut out of all the nominations the Fire had in Major League Soccer's year-end awards, Nemanja Nikolic received some recognition when he was included on the league's Best XI.

Nikolic led the league with 24 goals this season and was the first Fire player to lead the league. He broke the single-season record of goals in club history and all of this came in his first year with the team. He was also a deserving winner of the team's MVP award.

The eleven players were selected via a vote by media, MLS players and MLS technical staffs as part of the year-end awards.

Nikolic also finished second in voting for the 2017 Newcomer of the Year and is one of five finalists for the MVP award, although Portland's Diego Valeri is expected to win the award after MLS announced a press conference in Portland on Monday, the day the award winner is being announced.

What Fire's option decisions mean for the rest of the offseason

bava-arturo.jpg
USA TODAY

What Fire's option decisions mean for the rest of the offseason

Judgment day has come for a number of Fire players with the team announcing its decisions on contract options for the 2018 season.

In addition to the nine players that were guaranteed for 2018, the Fire picked up options on 11 players and declined eight others. There are some surprises in the list and they give some tells as to what lies ahead in the Fire’s offseason.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown to show what needs the Fire have before things will start to pick up in terms of player movement.

Goalkeeper

Guaranteed for 2018: Matt Lampson

Options exercised: Jorge Bava, Stefan Cleveland

Option declined: Richard Sanchez

Lampson hit a performance trigger late in the 2017 season to lock him in for 2018. He will be joined by Bava, who began the season as the starter until he was replaced by Lampson in May and then missed the rest of the season due to an elbow injury, and Cleveland, whose only playing time in his rookie season came in the USL.

The Fire’s press release states that the team is still negotiating with Sanchez. That is surprising considering most teams don’t keep four goalkeepers. When the 36-year-old Bava was out for the year, Sanchez was brought in as additional depth and he made two starts. Seeing Bava picked up, considering he brings a bigger cap hit than Sanchez and takes up an international spot, is definitely one of the biggest surprises.

Fans looking for an upgrade at the goalkeeper position may have to wait because it looks like general manager Nelson Rodriguez is going with the status quo.

Fullbacks

Guaranteed for 2018: Jorge Corrales

Options exercised: Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent, Drew Conner

Options declined: Patrick Doody, Michael Harrington

No major surprises here. Once Corrales was signed as an emergency backup when the Fire were ravaged with injuries at the position and it was known that he was guaranteed for 2018, Doody’s future was brought into question. Corrales will likely become Vincent’s backup at left back.

Conner can back up Polster at right back while also adding depth in central midfield. His versatility may be why he had his option picked up.

Centerbacks

Guaranteed for 2018: Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean

Option exercised: Jonathan Campbell

Option declined: Matej Dekovic

Out of contract: Joao Meira

Meira’s departure was the first bit of news for the offseason and Campbell returning was a near-lock. Dean will be coming off a major injury so depth at this position will be a major need, but homegrown prospect Grant Lillard, an Indiana senior and one of 15 Hermann Trophy semifinalists (college soccer’s version of the Heisman), could fill that need.

Central midfielders

Guaranteed for 2018: Djordje Mihailovic

Options exercised: Dax McCarty, Brandt Bronico, Drew Conner

Options declined: Collin Fernandez, Juninho (loan)

Out of contract: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Negotiations with Schweinsteiger are still taking place so this doesn’t mean anything yet. If anything, not picking up Juninho’s loan may be a good sign that the Fire believe they can retain the German.

Juninho had a big cap hit and did not play up to that level in 2017. He was a useful fill-in when Schweinsteiger was hurt or when McCarty was on national team duty. If Schweinsteiger does not return, this position should become the top priority of the offseason.

Bronico only played four matches totaling 53 minutes so it’s a bit surprising the third-round pick was retained.

Fernandez was the longest tenured player on the Fire, having signed as a homegrown in Aug. 2014. He will be cut loose at just 20 years old after having a solid season while on loan with Tulsa in the USL.

Depth at this position will also be of need with Mihailovic, as well as Michael de Leeuw, being out for the first part of 2018 as they both recover from ACL surgery. North Carolina sophomore Cam Lindley, another Hermann semifinalist and one of just two underclassmen in that group, could help fill that need as a homegrown if the Fire can lock him up.

Wingers

Guaranteed for 2018: David Accam, Luis Solignac

Options exercised: Arturo Alvarez, Daniel Johnson

Options declined: John Goossens, Joey Calistri

The surprise of this group is seeing Calistri go after he showed progress in the USL. The homegrown player from Deerfield had nine goals and six assists in 32 games for Tulsa.

Goossens showed talent in his time with the Fire, but couldn’t stay healthy. His ankle injury suffered in the 2017 season opener could end up being a career ender for the 28-year-old.

Accam and Polster are the only remaining members of the 2015 team.

Forwards

Guaranteed for 2018: Nemanja Nikolic, Michael de Leeuw

Option exercised: David Arshakyan

Don’t expect anything to change at this position with all the players coming back. Arshakyan’s return is a surprise considering he takes up an international spot and played only 27 minutes in the MLS regular season in 2017.

With the departures of Meira, Goossens and Dekovic, the Fire have seven internationals if Schweinsteiger returns, leaving one open spot.