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.

What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

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What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

For much of this winter, it appeared the Fire would enter 2018 with much of the same team that had the third best record in the league in 2017.

There were only minor surprises when the team announced which options it picked up and which players were cut loose. Homegrown signing Grant Lillard was the first addition of the offseason on Jan. 10 and that was expected after he completed his college career.

However, Nelson Rodriguez was apparently busy in the week leading up to the draft and saw that work turned into three trades on Friday. The Fire got two picks in the top 10 and sent away two starters from last year, including key winger David Accam.

There were already holes to fill on the roster, but the exits of Accam and goalkeeper Matt Lampson mean there are a couple more position needs with training camp starting on Monday.

“The roster is very much incomplete,” Rodriguez said after the draft. “There’s still quite a bit of work left to do. While it’s ideal to go into training camp with something that more closely resembles the roster that you’re looking to get into the season with. In our case, it is more important that we continue to add pieces that we think fit our style, fit our mentality, fit our philosophy and it’s important now that we remain disciplined in that pursuit and not feel pressure to just close the deal.”

A look at a potential starting lineup based on the current roster isn’t by any means bad, but it does need some improvement to match or improve upon last year.

Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty again give the Fire an elite central midfield pairing, Nemanja Nikolic is back after winning the Golden Boot in his first year and the defense should be somewhat solid depending on how Lillard and Jonathan Campbell fill in for the departed Joao Meira. However, goalkeeper is a question mark with Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland having two MLS appearances between them and Nikolic needs help in the attack with Accam and Arturo Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic expected to be out until at least July while recovering from torn ACLs.

Seeing Accam leave seemed like an inevitability at some point after years of rumors and complaints. Now that it’s a reality, it’s up to Rodriguez and the Fire to deliver an attack that can be productive without him after he had 14 goals and eight assists last year.

Second-year player Daniel Johnson is the immediate fill-in for Accam. He showed flashes of his potential last year as a rookie, but was limited to 125 after dealing with multiple injuries in 2017. Jon Bakero has the ability to step in underneath Nikolic, but that is an important role to throw at a rookie. The Fire’s dip at the end of last season coincided with de Leeuw’s injury so getting production out of that spot will be important.

The Fire could probably do just fine with one of Johnson or Bakero playing significant minutes in the first half of the season, but both? That’s asking an awful lot out of inexperienced players and it’s why the attack is likely where other moves will come.

Rodriguez said after the draft that there had been more trades in the works and some may still happen.

“We were very aggressive in Florida and here in Philadelphia in trying to make trades within the league and we were unsuccessful,” he said. “Some of those opportunities were by design, by our pursuit. There are still some opportunities which we wish to continue exploring and we will continue to make efforts.”

Rodriguez said the Accam trade gave the team “a lot of flexibility.” The allocation money gives the Fire an expanded salary cap of sorts to work with. Rodriguez said it “further opens up targets in the league” and he also added that they have specific players in mind.

“We also have three targets in particular outside of MLS,” he said. “I would say it’s possible given our current stated resources, our salary budget against the cap, it’s possible to potentially add two of those. Again, those are international deals. You first have to get the deal done before you can worry about the salary budget implications, but we will continue to be deliberate in our actions and disciplined in our attention.”

The Fire's roster is at 21, with two of those going to miss half the season due to injury, after finishing last season with 30.

Fire stay busy on draft day, trade David Accam to Philadelphia

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Fire stay busy on draft day, trade David Accam to Philadelphia

The dominoes continue to fall on the Fire's offseason, and seem to be doing so at an increasing pace.

After making two trades on draft day, the blockbuster move of the day broke after the first round completed. As first reported by Paul Tenorio and later announced at the draft, the Fire traded winger David Accam to Philadelphia for $300,000 in General Allocation Money and $900,000 in Targeted Allocation Money. The $1.2 million total is among the biggest allocation money trades in league history.

The move will have major implications on 2018 due to Accam's production since joining the Fire in 2015, but also because it likely is a move to set up other moves. Accam had his best year with the Fire in 2017 with 14 goals and eight assists while only making 24 starts (30 appearances in total).

"David had three very strong years for us and as we move forward though, we thought this would help," general manager Nelson Rodriguez said after the draft.

However, he had voiced his displeasure about being left off the All-Star Game roster by coach Veljko Paunovic, saying he was "disappointed my coach ignored me." Accam seemed to be appeased when the Fire picked up his option for 2018 in August. With his contract situation somewhat more sorted out, it appeared Accam may still have a future with the Fire despite having previously stated a desire to return to Europe at some point in his career.

Despite that history, Rodriguez said the Fire did not initiate talks for the trade.

"David never asked to leave," Rodriguez said. "I think he was surprised by the trade, but you’d have to ask him. It came together over the past week while we were in Florida for the combine and Philadelphia for the draft. The Union was aggressive in its bid and its intention.”

Rodriguez admitted to interest in Accam both from abroad and within MLS in the past. He explained the timing of why the trade was made now and other offers were turned down in the past.

“This was the most attractive offer we had in this window," Rodriguez said. "Circumstances change. We’re different today than we were in August when there were some other offers from overseas clubs. We just felt that this was an opportunity for us to try to advance our championship program in a different way and we thought it was a fair deal for both parties.”

While the move is a big one for Philadelphia in getting a player like Accam, the Fire likely aren't done. This is typically not the type of move that is made without another move in mind. Juan Quintero rumors continue to float around with the Fire and Argentine club River Plate both being mentioned as possible landing places for the Colombian international who has scored at a World Cup.

With Accam leaving, the Fire have an open spot for a Designated Player. Nemanja Nikolic and the recently re-signed Bastian Schweinsteiger are the two DPs on the roster.