All season long the Fire has downplayed the possibility of attacking midfielder Sebastian Grazzini leaving the club after his contract expires in July. Grazzini's departure, however, seemed a distinct possibility after Tuesday's training session at Toyota Park.
Grazzini made it clear that he and the club have an unresolved contract issue, and the possibility of getting it resolved seemed cloudy after Brazilian midfielder Alex went through his first training session in Bridgeview.
Alex, like many Brazilian players, prefers to go by only his first name in the soccer world. His full name is Alex Monteiro de Lima. Like Grazzini, he's also an attacking central midfielder but also says he's comfortable on the left side.
The Fire took a good look at Alex in preseason training, when he was under contract with FC Wohlen of Switzerland's second division. He signed with the Fire on April 26 but couldn't report until Wohlen's season was over, and he can't get into a match for the Fire until June 27 when the transfer window opens. He could make his Fire debut on June 29 at Sporting Kansas City.
Grazzini could still be on the roster then, too, but could be done shortly thereafter. He signed a one-year contract on July 13, 2011. So far his Argentina-based agent and the Fire have not reached agreement on a new deal.
The Fire brought in Grazzini in hopes of averting a second-straight disastrous season, and Grazzini did his part to bring respectability back to the franchise. He had five goals and four assists in 11 games, helping the Fire to a 7-2-1 finish that salvaged a.500 season (9-9-16).
Though more talented players have come on board this season the Fire is only a mediocre 5-5-3 heading into the resumption of the MLS season in Sunday's home match against the New York Red Bulls. The Fire lost its last three games prior to a two-week break, and Grazzini didn't play in two of them. He was on the field for Tuesday's training session while playing an uncomfortable waiting game with his contract.
"If the financing there, a good contract offer, I'm willing to stay,'' said Grazzini, speaking through the same translator that Alex used moments later, "but they've taken a little longer to decide.''
He is not happy about that.
"It bothers me because I have a family and am 20 days out of a contract,'' he said. "I don't want to leave on a bad note on anything, especially because I've done well on the pitch. I don't understand why it's taken so long. Thankfully I have offers from Argentina, but I like it here.''
Following MLS policy, the Fire doesn't disclose contract information but the MLS players union reports Grazzini as the lowest-paid Fire starter. According to the players group he was paid 48,000 in 2011 and has a base salary of 50,400 for 2012. There are players on the roster earning more than twice that.
Coach Frank Klopas might have been able to explain the contract delay, but he was missing from the session and said to be on a scouting trip at an undisclosed location. He spoke highly of Alex during the preseason and felt that his participation during three weeks of February sessions in Florida would help familiarize Alex with his future teammates.
"I know most of the players,'' said Alex. "Now I'm working on my fitness. I haven't been doing anything for two weeks, but by the 27th I should be ready again.''
Alex had offers from Dubai and Switzerland and his decision to choose the Fire came after discussions with his wife and other family members. He said his contract is for six months, which means just the rest of this season. According to sources, though, his loan agreement includes an option to extend the deal for three years. More financial details weren't disclosed.
There will be some pros and cons if the Fire decides on a midseason change at the critical attacking midfield spot. If Grazzini goes the Fire will lose experience. Grazzini has played for teams in Argentina, Spain, Belgium, Venezuela and Italy. He joined the Fire after a stint with the Argentine club All Boys.
If the Fire goes exclusively with Alex, the youth movement will get a boost. Alex is only 23, while Grazzini is 31. But Alex has only played professionally in Switzerland. He had two goals in 18 games for FC Gossau in the Swiss Challenge League to start his pro career and had seven goals in 48 matches for the last two seasons for FC Wohlen. He will wear No. 71 for the Fire.
Klopas wasn't the only absentee from the Fire coaching staff on Tuesday. Leo Percovich guided the reserve team in a match at Real Salt Lake. Arne Friedrich (hamstring), Chris Rolfe (ankle) and Dominic Oduro (hamstring) shook off their recent ailments and went through the whole training session, which was directed by assistant coach Mike Matkovich.