When David Accam was traded on draft day, it left a big hole on the wing for the Chicago Fire.
The Ghanaian was one of the team’s most productive players in each of his three seasons with the Fire and 2017 was his best year of the three. The player brought in to more or less replace Accam was Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai.
Katai has the Serbian national team connection with coach Veljko Paunovic, although Katai said he had never met Paunovic before the two parties began discussing bringing him to Toyota Park. Katai was not seeing the field with Deportivo Alaves in Spain’s La Liga and said making the move to the Fire was an easy decision.
“In Alaves I have this year (where) I played zero minutes and it’s very bad for one player,” Katai said on Tuesday. “I need to find a solution. When I heard that Veljko called me here to Chicago... I accept immediately.”
Katai last played for Alaves on Oct. 24 and last started on May 14. The combination of a club in Alaves that clearly had little interest in playing him and the Fire’s need for attacking additions gave few reasons for delay with the move.
“He was actually a player that we saw last year and that we liked,” Rodriguez said. “Then Matt Pearson, our scout, and Pauno brought him back. Often times we review our notes and bring players back. We reached out to the club and they, at that moment, indicated that they may consider moving him. They gave us permission to speak with Aleksandar, we did. He was very motivated by what we presented to him and that transaction actually came together pretty quickly and very easily.”
Despite joining from a team that was in-season, Katai’s lack of recent playing time means he could probably use some preseason time. After getting his visa, Katai joined the Fire in preseason training in Florida last Thursday and played in Saturday’s match at Orlando City. By the time the season opener kicks off on March 10 Katai will have had a couple weeks to adjust to his new teammates.
It hasn’t taken long for him to leave an impression on his teammates though.
“He’s just a proper footballer,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “He’s got a soccer brain. You can already tell from four or five days training with the guy. Right away, at least for me because I’m not super athletic, I always try to look for guys that think about the game before they step on the field and before they get running. You can tell in little passing exercises, little possession drills, he’s really clean on the ball. I don’t think you go play in La Liga if you’re not a really good player. I like what I’ve seen so far from him. Obviously he’s getting acclimated, trying to show a little bit of his personality. He’s a little quiet right now, but we’ll try to bring him out of his shell. But I think he’s going to be a huge piece for us, for sure.”
Paunovic echoed some of the same statements about Katai’s skillset. He said one of the coaches on Paunovic’s staff when he was a youth national team coach for Serbia had coached Katai and that helped with the familiarity.
When asked about what he brings to the table, Katai decided against boasting about himself.
“You will see,” Katai said with a smile. “I don’t want to talk here about my quality or something else. I will show everything I can on the field.”
Paunovic rattled off a number of attributes about Katai, but did say that he’s still getting used to the team. On paper Katai could slot into the starting lineup right away, but he may have to endure an adjustment period.
“He obviously has to learn the teammates,” Paunovic said. “He has to get to know with them and who needs the ball where, what are the qualities of the teammates and the team, which in a couple days you can not get all that information. For sure he’s very intelligent. He’s getting on the same page with other guys very quickly.”