Fire

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

Fire open offseason by sending Arturo Alvarez home

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Fire open offseason by sending Arturo Alvarez home

And they're off.

MLS Cup finished just last night with Toronto completing arguably the best season in league history, but the offseason doesn't wait long to get going. The Fire took advantage of Sunday's short trade window before Los Angeles FC's expansion draft takes place on Tuesday by trading Arturo Alvarez to the Houston Dynamo.

Alvarez, a Houston native, gets to go home and could finish his career with the Dynamo. The Fire received a second-round pick in the 2019 draft.

Alvarez, 32, made 55 regular season MLS appearances with the Fire in two years. He had five goals and nine assists in 2016, leading the team in assists. This past season he saw his minutes get nearly cut in half although he did regain a regular spot in the team towards the end of the season and finished with three goals and two assists.

“Arturo had perhaps his two best years wearing our red and we appreciate all that he gave to our club,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodríguez said in the team's statement. “We saw this as a chance to allow him to return home while opening up his minutes for some other players.”

The question is which players Rodriguez is referring to. Alvarez played primarily at right midfield, frequently cutting inside with his dangerous left foot. Two players come to mind as possible fill-ins already on the roster: Daniel Johnson and Brandt Bronico.

Johnson was the Fire's first-round pick in the 2017 draft and showed flashes of ability, but dealt with injuries through much of the season and made eight substitute appearances totaling 125 minutes. He is a wide player, but was the opposite of Alvarez, typically playing on the left and cutting in on his right foot.

Bronico was the 2017 third-round pick and made only four sub appearances adding up to 53 minutes played. With such limited action it was difficult to gauge whether he could be a wide midfielder or should be played centrally. Either way, with Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic out for the first few months of 2018 with ACL tears, both Johnson and Bronico will have opportunities the way the roster is currently constructed.

More news is due later today with the expansion draft set for Tuesday. The Fire will announce the 11 players they are protecting. Homegrown players (Drew Conner and Mihailovic) won't need to be protected. The Fire have 17 others players that will be eligible for the expansion draft.

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

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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.