Fire

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

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USA TODAY

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.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

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USA TODAY

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.