Fire

Chicago Red Stars enter third straight playoff appearance with 'higher expectations'

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Chicago Red Stars

Chicago Red Stars enter third straight playoff appearance with 'higher expectations'

The Chicago Red Stars have been one of the most consistent teams in the National Women’s Soccer League’s existence.

This season, the Red Stars earned a third straight playoff berth. Only Portland has made the playoffs more times in the league’s five years.

“It’s the hardest league in the world so we don’t take it for granted to be able to get into the playoffs,” coach Rory Dames said. “The consistency of the group has been exceptional and we’ve gradually added some pieces to try to take us over the hump.”

But something has been missing: playoff success. Each of the last two years the Red Stars have lost in the semifinals. They are hoping the third time is the charm when they visit the defending league champs and top seed North Carolina Courage on Sunday.

North Carolina posted a league-high 16 wins, but three of the team’s seven losses came at the hands of the Red Stars. The Red Stars won all three meetings between the two teams.

“It helps confidence wise, but we know they want us pretty bad as well,” said defender Casey Short, who also joked North Carolina is “not fun to go against.”

Dames admitted the three wins weren’t all clear cut, even going as far as to say a tie would have been fair in the second meeting and that the Red Stars stole a win the third time the teams played.

“We’ve learned in three years now... that it makes no difference what went on during the season,” Dames said. “This is a one-off. They’ll have some different things they’re going to do. We’ll have some different things that we’re going to do. It will be whatever goes on in those 90 minutes that determine who goes onto the final, not what’s gone on during the regular season.”

On paper, the Red Stars have more big names with five World Cup winners on the roster, Americans Christen Press, Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Morgan Brian and Japanese forward Yuki Nagasato. Nagasato and Brian arrived during the season with injuries and Dames said they are “a little bit behind” in integrating them into the team because of the time they’ve missed. Brian is expected to be out for the semifinal, but could play in the final if the Red Stars make it, according to Dames.

The big game experience on the team should in theory be a boost to a team hungry to improve upon recent playoff failures.

“I don’t know if we’re any more motivated than we were the last two years,” Dames said. “I think there’s more growth, there’s more experience there’s more understanding of how to handle this kind of game, this kind of situation, how you prepare for it.

“I think there’s a different level of confidence, a little bit more experience and a little bit higher expectations.”

Last year’s overtime loss at Washington was especially tough for the Red Stars.

“We want to make this year count,” Short said. “Last year was definitely a heartbreaker as well so we want to change our fate this year for sure.”

Fire and David Arshakyan mutually terminate contract

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USA TODAY

Fire and David Arshakyan mutually terminate contract

Once heralded as a potential diamond in the rough when he was signed in the summer of 2016, the Chicago Fire and forward David Arshakyan mutually agreed to terminate the Armenian player’s contract on Monday.

Arshakyan was initially signed upon the recommendation of coach Veljko Paunovic, who was credited with identifying the player. He signed on Aug. 3, 2016, less than two weeks before his 22nd birthday, from Lithuanian club FK Trakai.

The 6-foot-4 forward failed to score in nine games, three starts, in 2016 and saw his playing time diminish in 2017. Arshakyan made seven regular season appearances totaling 27 minutes. His 20-minutes sub appearance in the playoff defeat to the New York Red Bulls was his longest appearance of 2017. He finishes his Fire career without scoring a goal.

“I saw a couple of games that he played,” Paunovic said soon after Arshakyan’s arrival in 2016. “I found him very interesting in terms of his soccer qualities. Of course the profile he has, a big guy who can keep the ball, who can score goals, which is most important for a striker. The profile is something what we need.”

When the Fire picked up Arshakyan’s option this offseason it was seen as a surprise, but things have since changed. General manager Nelson Rodriguez gave a direct comment in the club’s press release about the transaction.

“Despite the best efforts of both sides, these past 16 months did not work out as either would have hoped. We wish David the best of luck as he continues his career,” Rodriguez said.

According to a club source, there was no buyout and the move will not make a hit on the Fire’s salary cap. Arshakyan’s departure will free up an international slot and clear up some cap room. He earned $178,850 in guaranteed compensation 2017, according to the MLS Players Union salary numbers.

The Fire are now somewhat thin at forward with Nemanja Nikolic and Luis Solignac the only healthy true forwards on the roster. Solignac players multiple roles in 2017, including playing on the wing. Michael de Leeuw is another option at forward, but is expected to miss the first few months of 2018 after tearing his ACL late in the 2017 regular season. Look for Rodriguez to add a forward, if only for depth, before the new season begins.

Fire rumored to be connected to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas

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AP

Fire rumored to be connected to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas

They don’t call it silly season in Europe for nothing.

The offseason rumors that pop up and, in some cases, happen make for good entertainment around the world of soccer. Sometimes those rumors are connected to MLS, whether or not the chances of them coming to fruition are high.

The latest example of this is Steven Goff of the Washington Post tweeting out a juicy rumor involving the Chicago Fire and former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

Goff doesn’t sound very confident in it happening and there are plenty of reasons why, but there are also reasons why it could make sense. In this case, it makes sense for Casillas to be looking for a home to continue his career. When his contract at FC Porto expires at the end of this European season in June, he will be 37 years old.

It’s been two and a half years since he left Real Madrid, where he spent the rest of his career, and he’s not the elite goalkeeper he once was. If Casillas wants to keep playing he may not be able to stick at a Champions League club like Porto, and that’s where the MLS rumors come into play. It makes sense for Casillas to have interest in joining MLS.

On the Fire’s end, the team isn’t loaded at goalkeeper, although there are three keeprs under contract (Matt Lampson, Jorge Bava, Stefan Cleveland) with the possibility of a fourth (Richard Sanchez) also returning. The numbers logjam could be rectified without much problem if the Fire have a chance to snag Casillas.

His experience as a World Cup and Champions League winner (like Bastian Schweinsteiger), would be a nice addition to the team, regardless of age. Casillas was one of the best goalkeepers in the world and won Spain's La Liga five times and the Champions League three times in addition to winning the 2010 World Cup.

The question from the Fire’s perspective is if he could justify the high cost he would likely come with. Goalkeepers aren’t often highly paid players in MLS with the way the salary cap works. More flexibility has been added with more and more resources being given to teams from the league, but the cost of a player like Casillas may be difficult to justify at goalkeeper, even if he would provide another marketing and attendance boost like Schweinsteiger did.

This rumor makes for a good headline, but may not have much basis in reality. Still, there's a decent chance Casillas' name will continue to be connected with a move to MLS until he signs his next deal.