Fire

What Fire's option decisions mean for the rest of the offseason

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USA TODAY

What Fire's option decisions mean for the rest of the offseason

Judgment day has come for a number of Fire players with the team announcing its decisions on contract options for the 2018 season.

In addition to the nine players that were guaranteed for 2018, the Fire picked up options on 11 players and declined eight others. There are some surprises in the list and they give some tells as to what lies ahead in the Fire’s offseason.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown to show what needs the Fire have before things will start to pick up in terms of player movement.

Goalkeeper

Guaranteed for 2018: Matt Lampson

Options exercised: Jorge Bava, Stefan Cleveland

Option declined: Richard Sanchez

Lampson hit a performance trigger late in the 2017 season to lock him in for 2018. He will be joined by Bava, who began the season as the starter until he was replaced by Lampson in May and then missed the rest of the season due to an elbow injury, and Cleveland, whose only playing time in his rookie season came in the USL.

The Fire’s press release states that the team is still negotiating with Sanchez. That is surprising considering most teams don’t keep four goalkeepers. When the 36-year-old Bava was out for the year, Sanchez was brought in as additional depth and he made two starts. Seeing Bava picked up, considering he brings a bigger cap hit than Sanchez and takes up an international spot, is definitely one of the biggest surprises.

Fans looking for an upgrade at the goalkeeper position may have to wait because it looks like general manager Nelson Rodriguez is going with the status quo.

Fullbacks

Guaranteed for 2018: Jorge Corrales

Options exercised: Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent, Drew Conner

Options declined: Patrick Doody, Michael Harrington

No major surprises here. Once Corrales was signed as an emergency backup when the Fire were ravaged with injuries at the position and it was known that he was guaranteed for 2018, Doody’s future was brought into question. Corrales will likely become Vincent’s backup at left back.

Conner can back up Polster at right back while also adding depth in central midfield. His versatility may be why he had his option picked up.

Centerbacks

Guaranteed for 2018: Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean

Option exercised: Jonathan Campbell

Option declined: Matej Dekovic

Out of contract: Joao Meira

Meira’s departure was the first bit of news for the offseason and Campbell returning was a near-lock. Dean will be coming off a major injury so depth at this position will be a major need, but homegrown prospect Grant Lillard, an Indiana senior and one of 15 Hermann Trophy semifinalists (college soccer’s version of the Heisman), could fill that need.

Central midfielders

Guaranteed for 2018: Djordje Mihailovic

Options exercised: Dax McCarty, Brandt Bronico, Drew Conner

Options declined: Collin Fernandez, Juninho (loan)

Out of contract: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Negotiations with Schweinsteiger are still taking place so this doesn’t mean anything yet. If anything, not picking up Juninho’s loan may be a good sign that the Fire believe they can retain the German.

Juninho had a big cap hit and did not play up to that level in 2017. He was a useful fill-in when Schweinsteiger was hurt or when McCarty was on national team duty. If Schweinsteiger does not return, this position should become the top priority of the offseason.

Bronico only played four matches totaling 53 minutes so it’s a bit surprising the third-round pick was retained.

Fernandez was the longest tenured player on the Fire, having signed as a homegrown in Aug. 2014. He will be cut loose at just 20 years old after having a solid season while on loan with Tulsa in the USL.

Depth at this position will also be of need with Mihailovic, as well as Michael de Leeuw, being out for the first part of 2018 as they both recover from ACL surgery. North Carolina sophomore Cam Lindley, another Hermann semifinalist and one of just two underclassmen in that group, could help fill that need as a homegrown if the Fire can lock him up.

Wingers

Guaranteed for 2018: David Accam, Luis Solignac

Options exercised: Arturo Alvarez, Daniel Johnson

Options declined: John Goossens, Joey Calistri

The surprise of this group is seeing Calistri go after he showed progress in the USL. The homegrown player from Deerfield had nine goals and six assists in 32 games for Tulsa.

Goossens showed talent in his time with the Fire, but couldn’t stay healthy. His ankle injury suffered in the 2017 season opener could end up being a career ender for the 28-year-old.

Accam and Polster are the only remaining members of the 2015 team.

Forwards

Guaranteed for 2018: Nemanja Nikolic, Michael de Leeuw

Option exercised: David Arshakyan

Don’t expect anything to change at this position with all the players coming back. Arshakyan’s return is a surprise considering he takes up an international spot and played only 27 minutes in the MLS regular season in 2017.

With the departures of Meira, Goossens and Dekovic, the Fire have seven internationals if Schweinsteiger returns, leaving one open spot.

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.