Aleksandar Katai hoping to fill David Accam's shoes with the Fire


Aleksandar Katai hoping to fill David Accam's shoes with the Fire

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.”

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.