Drew Conner

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

bava-arturo.jpg
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

polster-925.jpg
USA TODAY

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.

Notes from the rewatch: Fire win despite losing midfield

conner-vincent-918.jpg
USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: Fire win despite losing midfield

Numerous times this season the Fire have been the dominant team in midfield, stringing 10 or more passes together to lead to a scoring chance.

It was role reversal on Saturday with D.C. United winning the midfield battle, but the Fire still came out 3-0 winners. With a few key names missing from the Fire's midfield, namely Bastian Schweinsteiger, the team had to find a different way to win and it did.

Here's a look at how the Fire midfield worked with Drew Conner filling in, how Arturo Alvarez changed the game and Bill Hamid being the best goalkeeper to give up three goals in a game.

The Dax McCarty/Drew Conner midfield pairing

With Schweinsteiger and Juninho out, Dax McCarty's midfield partner was Conner. The second-year homegrown player has played more at right back this year, but he began his pro career as a midfielder and still views that as his natural position.

Conner did have a few notable turnovers and wasn't as involved in the play. His 33 touches were tied for the lowest on the team among starters. McCarty had 65 touches and more than twice as many passes attempted (56 to 24).

It appeared D.C. wanted to force Conner into turnovers when possible. This play shows how D.C. swarmed Conner after he received a pass from McCarty:

Another thing worth noting from this play is how there is no support for Conner as he pushes forward. Nemanja Nikolic and the two wingers, David Accam on the left and Alvarez on the right, are too far from Conner to help him and he gets easily and quickly outnumbered on this occasion. This is a slightly unfair example because the player playing underneath Nikolic, Luis Solignac, had won the ball in the defensive third and gave it to McCarty, but the point is D.C. seemed to identify Conner as a weak link.

D.C. finished with 57 percent of the possession and had a number of extended stretches of possession, connecting more than 10 passes in a row. There were five sequences of 15 passes or more in a row completed by D.C. The Fire dropped off in the midfield, choosing not to press, but D.C. was able to break down the Fire this way consistently. The reason it didn't always go noticed was that D.C.'s forward play was lacking. Throw a Nikolic-type forward on this D.C. team and they could be real good next year.

Arturo Alvarez's big plays

With Solignac slotting into Michael de Leeuw's role, Alvarez got to play on the right wing and show off his left foot. He made a number of big plays, including assisting on the Fire's second goal with a cross to Brandon Vincent.

With Accam creating a whopping six chances on the left wing (although four came via corners) and Alvarez creating two on the right wing, the Fire killed D.C. from wide areas. Alvarez is known for cutting in on his left foot from the right wing and creating chances, either for himself or others. That's nothing new.

The key to Alvarez's play on Saturday was that he did some dirty work on the defensive end to go with it. He was credited with four tackles, four clearances and four ball recoveries. The tackles were most on the team and the clearances were most on the team for a non-defender.

Bill Hamid's incredible, unrewarded play

Bill Hamid was outstanding for D.C., but could only do so much. He made an incredible series of saves (see the highlights below) only to be beaten by his own teammate.

On the own goal, it appears Ian Harkes was trying to head it out for a corner, which is odd in the first place. He should have just cleared it up field or back to the sideline. Instead he headed it in the direction of his goal and gave Hamid no chance for a save.

Bill, your thoughts?