Drew Conner

2018 Fire preview: Midfield

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USA TODAY

2018 Fire preview: Midfield

The Fire’s midfield underwent a major restructuring in 2017 and it went from being a weakness to a strength. As a result, the unit didn’t see much change entering 2018.

Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger will once again form one of the best central midfield pairings in the league. There are a couple new faces, but the team will still run through them.

Returning players (2017 MLS regular season stats)

Dax McCarty (28 games played, 28 starts, 2,465 minutes, 5 assists)

Bastian Schweinsteiger (24 GP, 23 GS, 1,993 minutes, 3 goals, 6 assists)

Drew Conner (21 GP, 8 GS, 882 minutes, 1 assist)

Djordje Mihailovic (17 GP, 7 GS, 732 minutes)

Brandt Bronico (4 GP, 53 minutes)

Newcomers

Mo Adams (No. 10 pick)

Tony Tchani (trade with Vancouver)

There might be improved depth in this unit with Tchani replacing Juninho and rookie Mo Adams showing signs of being a contributor in preseason. Mihailovic being out for a significant chunk of the season while he recovers from his ACL tear does take away a somewhat different option in midfield, but it’s not clear how he will fit into this lineup when healthy.

Conner got a decent chunk of minutes last season when injuries hit the team hard, but it doesn’t look like they will be easy to come by for him this year. The addition of Rafael Ramos as a backup right back takes away one spot Conner earned minutes in last year. Tchani and Adams coming in with only Juninho leaving means Conner could be further down the depth chart in central midfield unless he beats out Adams for playing time.

Schweinsteiger’s role could see some variation this year. At times in 2017 he played higher up the field and he also played a sweeper/libero role on occasion, but he settled into his more traditional defensive midfield spot by the latter part of the season. With no playmaker on the roster (as general manager Nelson Rodriguez has mentioned the team is still looking for), it appears Schweinsteiger will be one of the players to step into an advanced role in midfield.

Coach Veljko Paunovic said Schweinsteiger will play higher or deeper depending on what he thinks they can take advantage of, and even said the phrase “No. 10” in that context unsolicited after Saturday’s preseason finale.

Tchani and McCarty can be the defensive stalwarts while Schweinsteiger can have more freedom to join in on the attack. If one of them is unavailable, Adams seems like the first choice off the bench given how extensively he played in preseason.

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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.

Notes from the rewatch: The Fire's second half defensive issues

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Notes from the rewatch: The Fire's second half defensive issues

The Fire headed to Philadelphia on Saturday with a good chance to get some points on the road against a team out of the playoff race.

However, things rarely come easy on the road in MLS and the Fire got another lesson in that. Despite having the run of play and creating more quality chances in the first half, the Fire stared at a halftime deficit after conceding soon after a set piece.

The surprising part was the second half, where the Fire's defense gave up a number of chances and two early goals to put the game away. Here's a look at what happened to the Fire's defense and how the shorthanded midfield is coping.

Philadelphia's fullbacks play key role

The recent injuries to Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster showed how key the play of the outside backs are in the Fire's system. The Fire's inability to create through the middle of the field and the quality Vincent and Polster (and Patrick Doody when he played for Vincent and provided four assists in seven starts) have shown in the attack has made those two very important to the Fire.

Philadelphia used fullbacks to great effect as well on Saturday, and the Union's pair of Fabinho and Keegan Rosenberry ultimately outshined Vincent and Polster. Both Union fullbacks had assists, created multiple other chances and overloaded the Fire's defense by adding numbers to the attack.

Rosenberry's assist came after a corner kick was only partially cleared, but he did make a nice move to give himself space for the cross and put in a good ball. Fabinho went for the long ball a lot and had some bad turnovers, but he got forward enough to be a nightmare for the Fire's defense. Check out this look at the third goal:

Fabinho actually played a role in two goals. His low cross in the ninth minute, which was the only decent chance Philly created from the run of play in the first half, was cleared for a corner. That corner led to the first goal.

Philadelphia lost the midfield battle to the Fire, but got numbers forward when they had the opportunity to overwhelm the Fire's defense and did so with much better effect after halftime.

Philly's second-half surge

In the first half it appeared the only way Philadelphia was going to score was through a set piece. The Union created a decent number of them, but didn't create anything from the run of play.

Things changed in the second half with the two goals and a pair of missed headers that came from crosses all coming from open play in the second half. The Fire were being more aggressive while trailing and conceded chances on the counter, but also had some key turnovers. Without Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Fire's defense seemed to get exposed more often.

Philadelphia ended up outshooting the Fire 15-11 and had a 6-5 edge in shots on target. The Union also had more corners (6-3) and crosses (23-14). It ended up being a resounding win for the Union.

Fire display "patience" for only goal

In the first half Fire coach Veljko Paunovic was seen and heard yelling "Patience, patience!" to his players, even while the team was trailing 1-0. When things were going good for the Fire, it was often with methodical, deliberate buildups that were from strings of 10 or more passes in a row.

There probably wasn't as much of that as Paunovic or the Fire would like, thus him yelling it to his team, but the team's only goal of the game came after a 21-pass buildup. Polster crossed to Nemanja Nikolic, who made an impressive flick in the general direction of Luis Solignac. Solignac, who had subbed into the game fewer than 10 minutes before, got inside position on Rosenberry and buried it.

At this point, the Fire will not suddenly become a team which can build through the middle of the field. The Fire rely on good service from the fullbacks and on this occasion Polster provided a good ball and Nikolic and Solignac made plays to turn it into a goal.