Jorge Bava

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 GM Nelson Rodriguez still 'searching' for potential summer additions

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Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez still 'searching' for potential summer additions

The summer transfer window in Major League Soccer has been open for a couple weeks and the Chicago Fire may make a couple moves before it closes on August 9.

Those moves may not necessarily affect the regular starting lineup, but Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said on Friday that they continue to seek out options to add depth to the team’s defense and that they may need another goalkeeper with Jorge Bava possibly being out for the season.

Bava, a 35 year-old from Uruguay who joined the Fire in January, has been out with what the club is calling left elbow tendinitis. He started the first eight matches of the season, but lost his starting job to Matt Lampson in May. He hasn’t been available as a sub since he was the backup June 4 in Orlando. Bava has been limited in training recently while wearing a brace on his left arm.

Rodriguez said Bava will go on the disabled list. While he is on the disabled list, he would not take up an international spot but would still count against the team’s salary cap.

“If he ends up needing surgery, which I think is likely, then his season will likely be lost and that international spot will open up, but there’s no budget room,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez added that if Bava is out for the season that will “require us to consider looking for another goalkeeper.” The Fire have two others on the roster in Lampson and rookie Stefan Cleveland, who hasn’t played for the Fire and has made only one appearance for USL affiliate Tulsa.

Slightly further up the field, defensive depth is something Rodriguez mentioned the team needed more of back in May. There are still only three centerbacks on the roster in Johan Kappelhof, Joao Meira and Jonathan Campbell. A significant injury to any of those three would significantly hamper Veljko Paunovic’s options and flexibility, especially considering his tendency to use all three on the field in a tactical shift on occasion.

Justin Bilyeu, a 23-year-old former New York Red Bulls defender and former college teammate of Fire defender Matt Polster, has been training with the Fire for the past couple weeks. Bilyeu spent most of the past two seasons with the Red Bulls’ USL team before being waived on June 28. In addition, Cuban left back Jorge Corrales, who is currently a Tulsa player, was in training with the Fire this week, but is set to return to Tulsa for the Roughnecks’ next match on Monday.

“We have brought a couple players in on trial this week,” Rodriguez said of the pursuit of defensive depth. “We’ve spoken to a couple teams within the league. We continue to follow some targets, but we have not settled on a specific player to pursue. I don’t think we have yet felt comfortable with what we have in the pipeline, but we’ll keep searching.”

Rodriguez said the team is also looking at improving the midfield, but believes they are “pretty set” at forward. He wouldn’t comment on the rumors of Colombian playmaker Juan Quintero. The latest on that front is a tweet from Taylor Twellman saying the deal isn’t dead even though Quintero extended his loan with Colombian club DIM.


With the Fire sitting in second place in MLS, Rodriguez admitted his three-year plan for the team has been “accelerated a bit.” Rodriguez has a chance to put the cherry on top of a roster that has proven to be one of the best in the league to this point in the season. Is there more urgency to try to boost a team that appears to be a championship contender?

“There’s always a temptation to think ‘Oh man, we’re right there and if we get this piece it will just push us over the top.’ We remind ourselves all the time to refer back to our plan, to look at the opportunity to try to calculate what the knock on effects, positive and negative may be for the future, because ultimately we want to keep this good thing going for a run and a run isn’t one season.

“If something makes sense to us when you think it fits into the development of that championship program, we’ll do it. Just as we’ve been unable to add that backline depth all year long, we won’t do something just to check a box on a list. We’ll only do it if we think it makes sense in the overall context of what we’re trying to achieve.”

Notes from the rewatch: Fire under siege in Atlanta

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: Fire under siege in Atlanta

Saturday's 4-0 loss in Atlanta was the first setback in the young season for the Chicago Fire.

The first loss of the season came as a result of a nigthmarish first 11 minutes which left the Fire almost no way to come back. It wasn't just Johan Kappelhof's early red card that doomed the Fire though, things were already looking grim beforehand.

Here's a look at the 11 minutes of 11v11 from the match and other observations from after the Fire were down a man.

Evaluating things before the red card

It's hard to evaluate the Fire's performance considering they went down a man so early in the match. However, the symptoms of a bad loss were already showing in the first 10 minutes despite the Fire having a couple decent chances in the first several minutes.

In the second minute, the Fire showed a quick counter, which was probably the gameplan going in on the road against a possession-oriented team like Atlanta. Michael Harrington intercepted a switch pass with a header. The header landed with Dax McCarty. McCarty found Arturo Alvarez, who turned it over, but Atlanta gave it right back to David Accam. Accam mishit the shot and it went harmlessly wide. It was a sloppy play from both teams, but it showed the Fire's intent to be dangerous on the counter.

Two minutes later Atlanta went on top with a pair of slightly unlucky breaks for the Fire. Atlanta is cycling possession around the back until pushing forward with a pass to Yamil Asad. Asad takes a heavy touch and Alvarez and McCarty swarm him to try to force the turnover. They are unable to win it cleanly and Josef Martinez steps in to redirect the ball into the path of Hector Villalba. Seconds after nearly forcing a turnover, the Fire are now scrambling defensively.

Villalba feeds Julian Gressel wide right and his low cross ricochets off Brandon Vincent and into the net. Atlanta was quicker to a loose ball and was able to quickly get the ball in the penalty box. After that, it's just an unlucky deflection.

Arturo Alvarez did have a chance a few minutes after the goal by cutting onto his left foot, what else, but the shot is an easy save for Alec Kann.

Then Atlanta kicked in its possession dominance. A 26-pass sequence led to a Michael Harrington foul in Atlanta's defensive half. The Fire were already chasing and struggling to get on the ball, even before going down a man.

The red card itself comes from an intercepted Michael Harrington throw in. Atlanta is off to the races at that point and Johan Kappelhof is sent off, which practically ended the game at that moment.

It's easy to point to the red card when explaining Atlanta's mind-blowing possession numbers (83 percent for the match), but the hosts actually had 87 percent of the possession in the first 10 minutes of the match. The Fire may have planned to weather an early storm and then try to work their way into the match with counters or more aggressive pressing, but they were already down a goal and couldn't get on the ball. The red card may have ended the Fire's chances of coming back, but it wasn't looking good before it either, even considering the goal involved a bit of luck.

Jonathan Campbell's first action of 2017

Campbell probably had the toughest season debut possible. Sub into a match after just 15 minutes in front of a sold out, hostile crowd when your team is already down a goal and a man. On top of that Atlanta forward Josef Martinez has superb movement, forcing the centerbacks to constantly stay on their toes.

Campbell had an impressive rookie season and led the Fire in minutes. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he has a possible future with the national team. However, Campbell didn't play in either of the Fire's first two matches this season. Kappelhof's red card thrust him into a tough situation and will require him to start against Montreal in the Fire's next match.

He made some nice plays beforehand, but was involved in Atlanta's second and third goals. Campbell headed a clearance from goalkeeper Alec Kann that went right into the path of Miguel Almiron. Almiron then threaded a nice pass to Josef Martinez. Campbell's errant header started Atlanta's break and he couldn't keep up with Martinez after that.

The video below starts just as Almiron controls Campbell's header.

Then on Atlanta's third goal, Campbell denies a Greg Garza cross headed for Martinez. Campbell had position and was able to stay in front of his man. However, the clearance went up the middle in the box and Hector Villalba hammered it home.

It wasn't a great outing, but assuming he starts against Montreal that would be a better judge to see where Campbell is in his second year.

Jorge Bava's distribution

Whenever a team signs a South American goalkeeper, the stereotype is that he is good with his feet and in distribution. In the case of the Uruguayan Bava, it was magnified because of Paunovic's desire to play out of the back and general manager Nelson Rodriguez's comment this preseason that Bava's skillset was rare among domestically based goalkeepers.

So how is Bava doing?

In the season opener at Columbus he had a pair of turnovers on distribution, one of which led to a chance on goal. The following week he was clean against Real Salt Lake. He came off his line on a couple occasions when needed, he caught all the crosses he was supposed to and his distribution was solid.

In Atlanta Bava made both some impressive throws and long kicks and had more dangerous turnovers.

For starters, Bava's yellow card in the 18th minute had a bit of a comedic element to it. Bava came out to punch away a long ball in the corner of the box. He dribbled the ball out of bounds after hesitation and then gets a yellow for running away with the ball so he can get back in position. He could have just blasted the ball 40 rows up, but for whatever reason he didn't. Ultimately no harm, no foul other than an unnecessary yellow card.

A few minutes later was a sequence that encapsulated what Bava's distribution has been like with the Fire. He turned the ball over on a goal kick, but after he reclaimed the ball from the ensuing attack he hit a nice long punt that found Nemanja Nikolic (who made an impressive one-touch trap) past midfield. Later in the half he heaved a throw past midfield that Nikolic was able to run onto.

To cap it off, in the 90th minute he came out of his box to intercept a ball over the top. He then missed the 10-yard pass aimed for McCarty.

Bava has shown the standout long kicks and throws that Paunovic seems to be looking for, but has also made mistakes on some of the simpler plays. None have led to goals yet, but that's something he will need to clean up.

To close, here's an impressive view of Josef Martinez's fourth goal from Saturday: