As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed


As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

General manager Nelson Rodriguez has taken his time this offseason, but things have been picked up in the past week and will continue to do so with the draft taking place on Friday.

Rodriguez spoke with reporters on a conference call a day after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s return became official and just hours after Jorge Bava’s exit and the Cam Lindley trade were announced as expected. Those topics and plenty more were discussed serving as a state of the team with offseason activity ramping up.

First off, the big news remains Schweinsteiger’s return. Rodriguez would not disclose the German’s salary, but did say that there is no option for a second year on the contract. The two sides would have to renegotiate just like they did this winter for him to return in 2019.

“Both parties were keenly interested in continuing the relationship so I think that made things a lot easier,” Rodriguez said. “There are always some little details that need to be worked out and I think that’s what prolonged the discussions, but I believe both parties felt reasonably confident that we would continue together.”

Elsewhere, the finalization of the Lindley trade allowed Rodriguez to discuss some of the details of the breakdown in negotiations with the homegrown prospect. The Fire sent the rights to Lindley to Orlando for Rafa Ramos and $100,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (broken down as $50,000 in both 2018 and 2019). Lindley signed a four-year contract with Orlando.

The Fire approached Lindley last winter, but he returned to North Carolina for his sophomore season.

“When we spoke this year, Cameron indicated that he would prefer to start his career outside of Chicago and so we were able to fulfill that wish for him, but in the process we thought we did very well for ourselves in acquiring a very talented, young player with professional experience and then on top of that getting allocation money, which can serve us,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s an instance where it’s a win-win for Orlando and for us.”

Ramos, 23, will likely be the backup to both Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent. Lindley is a 20-year-old central midfielder who could have provided depth behind Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty this year.

When asked why Lindley didn’t want to sign with the Fire, Rodriguez said he didn’t ask Lindley.

“I’m only concerned with players who are in our locker room and want to play for us,” Rodriguez said.

Bava’s exit was under different circumstances. The 36-year-old goalkeeper expressed a desire to return to his home country of Uruguay, which he was able to do by landing with Liverpool FC Montevideo. The Fire and Bava mutually agreed to terminate his contract.

“He came to us and let us know that he had a playing opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “I think the second part of it is that we indicated to Jorge that we were very comfortable with Matt (Lampson) and Richard (Sanchez) and that it was going to be difficult for him to unseat one or both of those guys.”

Those moves put the Fire’s roster at 21 heading into Friday’s draft. The first two rounds will take place in Philadelphia starting at 10 a.m. The Fire have the 15th and 38th picks.

Rodriguez said the Fire’s draft is very different this year after having the top pick in 2016 and the third pick in 2017. The Fire traded both of those picks.

“With the first pick and the third pick, teams generally come to you,” Rodriguez said. “My experience is that there are several teams going for the clubs that hold those top three spots now so it’s almost flipped in that if we want to be active, no one is looking to move up to 15.

“I wouldn’t discount our making a trade because we have had conversations, admittedly all with teams ahead of us in the draft, no one below us in the draft. But some of that may be dependant upon how the draft actually goes. Usually you lock in on one or two players, you don’t want to necessarily trade up without knowing either or both of those players might be available. It might be a situation that occurs during the draft as opposed to prior to the draft.”

As for other potential additions, Rodriguez didn’t say much. He wouldn’t comment on the continuing Juan Quintero rumors and reports. The news is seemingly going in both directions on that front.

Rodriguez did comment on a potential return for Juninho, the Brazilian midfielder who was on loan with the Fire last season. Mexican club Tijuana holds his rights after the loan expired.

“We told Juni and his agent that we were not going to offer a transfer to acquire his services, but if he could extricate himself from that contract, we would be interested in having him return to the club,” Rodriguez said.

When asked what he believes the roster still needs, Rodriguez said “across all our lines,” even mentioning goalkeeper as part of that. At this point most additions will be for depth, but Rodriguez mentioned the need to replace midfielder Djordje Mihailovic and forward Michael de Leeuw, both of which suffered torn ACLs last in the 2017 season. Rodriguez said they are hoping for those players to return from injury in July or August, but obviously things can change as they continue to rehab.

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.