David Accam

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

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USA TODAY

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

It was locker clean out day for the Fire and while there was definitely a last day of school feel in the locker room, a number of the players left Toyota Park on Wednesday not knowing their immediate futures.

Just seven of the 30 players that finished 2017 on the roster have guaranteed contracts for 2018: Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean, Jorge Corrales, David Accam, Michael de Leeuw, Nemanja Nikolic and Luis Solignac. A healthy number more can safely head into the winter knowing they will have their team options picked up (Dax McCarty, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster to name a few), but plenty more face uncertainty.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said the front office is “still discussing” which players will be brought back and which won’t. Rodriguez added that he is about halfway through exit interviews with the players and expects to finish them by the end of the week.

“The rules allow us to not to have to make that decision until late November, early December, the first day of December, so we won’t,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll take our time in doing that and we’ll explore internal options and options that may present themselves from the international market.”

The big question mark is German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. The 33-year-old is out of contract and is currently in Serbia with his Serbian wife, Ana Ivanovic.

“Our conversations I would characterize are going very well, very positively,” Rodriguez said. “We remain optimistic that Basti and we will reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.

“I won’t put a timeline on it. I think Basti has proven his importance to our club and to our team and that remains a priority to bring him back.”

Along with Schweinsteiger, center back Joao Meira is the only other player not already guaranteed for 2018 that the Fire do not hold an option on.

Rodriguez admitted injuries will also play a part in the decision process. Accam had surgery to repair two hernias in his hip on Tuesday and is expected to be fully healthy by December, but de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic will miss a significant chunk of the 2018 season. Mihailovic already had his ACL surgery while de Leeuw's ACL surgery is scheduled for Thursday morning. The absence of those two players, who figured to be regulars next season, for what could be around half of the season alters Rodriguez's plan for 2018.

After a much-improved regular season, which saw the Fire finish with the third best record in the league, was followed up by a one-and-done playoff exit, the key this winter will be how much things should change.

“The arc of this offseason will be that delicate balance,” Rodriguez said. “We know we need to improve. We know we like our core, but change is inevitable. You can’t have both. We can’t fully retain this group and add pieces.”

While coach Veljko Paunovic, who denied any connection to the open Serbia national team job at the start of the press conference, has already been on a scouting trip and has others planned in Europe and South America, he said his first choice is to have the current players come back improved for next season.

“The guys that we decide to come back, they have to come back better than they left,” Paunovic said before calling adding other players Plan B.

So while there are only hints to go on for now, the first dominoes of the Fire’s offseason will take place in about three weeks time.

5 things to watch for during the Fire’s offseason

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USA TODAY

5 things to watch for during the Fire’s offseason

The Fire made the playoffs for the first time in five years, but an ugly 4-0 loss at home meant the postseason appearance merely extended the season by three days and resulted in an eighth straight season without a playoff win.

As the dust begins to settle from the 2017 season, there are plenty of questions heading into the offseason. Nearly every MLS team will have a decent amount of turnover in an offseason, but the Fire could have some important contributors not come back in 2018.

Here are five storylines to watch for as the offseason progresses.

1. Negotiating a return for Bastian Schweinsteiger

As long as Schweinsteiger was with the Fire, all the headlines were about him. For that to continue for another year, he and the team will have to come to another agreement. The German’s contract was a one-year deal and both sides have said they are willing to do another deal, but nothing certain has come out.

A week before the playoff game, general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave an update of sorts on the negotiations.

“I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything,” Rodriguez said.

After the Fire lost to the Red Bulls, coach Veljko Paunovic was asked about the chances of a Schweinsteiger return and mostly deferred to Rodriguez.

“Obviously we want Bastian back,” Paunovic said. “We want to have a man and a player like him, on and off the field. But obviously this is not the question even for me.”

As for Schweinsteiger?

“As Nelson Rodriguez said, we are in talks,” Schweinsteiger said. “We will see how it is. It is the same like with every player here.”

It sounds like negotiations will ramp up in the coming days and weeks, but this may not be resolved quickly.

The Fire likely won’t be able to replace Schweinsteiger’s international celebrity status or his experience. It is possible the team could replace his production, but that won’t be easy either.

The German's options may not be plentiful either. He has said he doesn’t want to play elsewhere in Germany or England and clubs in other top leagues in Europe may hesitate to take him at the price he was getting from the Fire.

This is by far the biggest story of the Fire’s offseason, and the quicker the resolution, the better so Rodriguez can plan the rest of the offseason around it.

2. David Accam transfer rumors

The rumors about Accam’s suitors abroad will persist. If the Fire want to cash in, this would be the time. His contract runs out after 2018 and he’s made it known previously that he would like to play in Europe again.

Rodriguez will have a tough decision to make. Either keep Accam in the hopes of making a push in 2018 and risk losing him for nothing or sell him in January and hope you can replace his production.

Further complicating things is Accam’s nerve issue in his hip. He has been dealing with it for weeks and it was a true day-to-day thing where some days he would feel fine and others he would be in pain. That injury may cause other teams to take pause when offering a transfer fee for Accam, especially because if he moves in January, that will be in the middle of the European season. Teams looking for a quick fix to finish the season may not get that depending on the recovery process.

3. Potential homegrown signings

The Fire have plenty of high-level prospects in college soccer and will likely add at least one to the roster in 2018. North Carolina sophomores Cameron Lindley and Mauricio Pineda and Indiana defenders senior Grant Lillard and junior Andrew Gutman are all pro prospects.

Lindley, one of the best players in college soccer, could play right away in the midfield with the injuries of Michael de Leeuw and Mihailovic keeping them out for the start of 2018.

However, the most likely homegrown signing is Lillard. The Hinsdale native is a big body at 6-foot-4, but is noted for his athleticism as well as his size. He trained with the Fire this summer and could potentially step right in or at least compete with Jonathan Campbell for playing time at center back next to Johan Kappelhof if Joao Meira, who is one of two players the Fire do not have an option for, does not return. Lillard is ranked as the third best player in college soccer by TopDrawerSoccer.com. Lindley is ranked second.

Rodriguez mentioned Lillard as the most likely to sign when talking just over a week ago to reporters, but said, as he has before, that he will wait for the college season to end for these players to begin talking with them about signing pro deals.

4. The goalkeeper situation

Matt Lampson had his ups and downs, but the switch to Richard Sanchez in the regular season finale made it appear the position was up for grabs. Jorge Bava was brought in to be the starter last offseason, but struggled early and was replaced by Lampson before an elbow injury ended his season. Sanchez, a younger keeper at 23, was brought in to add depth, but could also be the team’s goalkeeper of the future.

Will both Lampson and Sanchez be back to fight for the spot or will Rodriguez make an addition to bolster the spot?

5. More roster flexibility

By the end of the offseason, the Fire were up against the limit for international slots and that meant any summer moves would require some extra jockeying. That didn’t mean necessarily mean any moves were prevented by that, but it did make things more complicated.

Even if Schweinsteiger is brought back there are as many as five foreign players who could realistically not be back: Bava, Joao Meira, David Arshakyan, John Goossens and Matej Dekovic. If five leave, the Fire will have three spots (they were able to go over the limit due to Bava and Goossens going on the disabled list).

In addition, if Juninho does not come back now that his loan from Tijuana has expired, there is more salary cap room to go with that. If Juninho and Schweinsteiger don’t return, the midfield will be a position of priority when factoring in the aforementioned injuries to de Leeuw and Mihailovic.

Fire preparing for playoffs to be 'incredibly different'

Fire preparing for playoffs to be 'incredibly different'

The two teams heading into Wednesday’s MLS playoff opener have very different recent histories.

The New York Red Bulls are entering into an eighth straight postseason while the Fire have made it just one other year, 2012, during the Red Bulls’ run. So while the Red Bulls have plenty of playoff experience, the Fire have just a few players on the roster who have played in the playoffs, Arturo Alvarez, Michael Harrington, Juninho and former Red Bull Dax McCarty.

McCarty is in the spotlight a bit more than normal because of the subplot of facing his former team in the playoffs after his drama-filled exit in January. He also gets to tell his team about just how different the playoffs are from the regular season.

“It’s incredibly different, in every sense,” McCarty said on Monday. “I can’t stress that enough. The little details, they become even finer. The margin between winning and losing is so thin that the team that is sharper on the day, the team that is more physical on the day, the team that works harder on the day, that’s usually the team that gives themselves the best chance to win. Now, you have to obviously add in quality to go along with that, but playoff games are not like regular season games. They’re just not.”

McCarty also shared this message, along with some of the other MLS playoff veterans, with the team on Monday. For someone like David Accam, who endured back-to-back last place finishes in his first two years with the Fire, this is a good kind of different.

“We had a meeting, everyone shared their experience and how the playoffs is and how they felt during the playoffs,” Accam said. “I’ve played in major competitions before and I know the feeling. It’s a knockout game and you want to win. A lot of people are watching and you want to show that you are good enough to be playing in this type of game so everyone is excited.”

McCarty played in a number of big games with the Red Bulls, but the club hasn’t made MLS Cup since 2008. For all of their regular season success, which includes Supporters' Shields in 2013 and 2015, the Red Bulls have developed a reputation of struggling in the playoffs.

“I know first-hand that that team has been through some battles and they’ve had a lot of heartbreak and they’ve had guys that have been in really big games before,” McCarty said. “I think we have, too, but to a lesser extent.

"I think experience is important because you know what to expect... In a sense that helps settle the nerves a little bit.”

The experience gap as far as MLS playoffs go is big, but others on the Fire have big match experience. Johan Kappelhof participated in the Dutch Eredivisie’s playoffs to qualify for the Europa League and of course Bastian Schweinsteiger has won the Champions League and the World Cup.

As for the German, he returned to training on Monday. The team arrived from Houston on Sunday night and would normally have a regen day or an off day after a match, but the short turnaround didn’t allow for that. Schweinsteiger sat out the last two games due to a calf injury that has limited him to one 19-minute appearance in the past seven matches, but should be back Wednesday.

“I feel OK," Schweinsteiger said. "I mean obviously I didn’t play so many minutes in the past month, but I feel OK. Let’s see.”

Will he start?

"It's a secret," he said with a laugh.

The concept of playoffs to Schweinsteiger is literally a bit foreign. He quipped about how different the seasons are compared to what he’s used to.

“We came third in the whole country,” Schweinsteiger said. “I don’t know if you were expecting that before the season. I think it’s good, but at the end of the day in America it depends on the playoffs. In the Bundesliga you would be in the Champions League, but here it’s more or less, yeah, nothing.

“It’s going to be hopefully a great evening for us.”