Juninho

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

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USA TODAY

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

The MLS offseason doesn't take long to get in gear.

The Fire traded Arturo Alvarez earlier on Sunday, the same day which the list of protected players was to be announced ahead of Tuesday's expansion draft for Los Angeles FC.

LAFC will take five players in the expansion draft, which is set for 1 p.m. on Tuesday. A team can only lose one player. Each team can protect 11 players and homegrown players aren't eligible for selection. For the Fire that means Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic can't be taken.

The Fire protected David Accam, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho, Matt Polster, Richard Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luis Solignac and Brandon Vincent.

While Sanchez and Schweinsteiger are out of contract, the Fire have said they are negotiating with both players. Protecting Juninho is a bit of a surprise because it implies that the Fire have some intention of keeping him for next year, or at least keeping his rights to be traded.

The Fire left David Arshakyan, Jorge Bava, Brandt Bronico, Stefan Cleveland, Jorge Corrales, Michael de Leeuw, Christian Dean, Daniel Johnson and Matt Lampson unprotected. De Leeuw would be a worthwhile pickup for LA if it thinks he is worth it after his ACL tear suffered late in the season.

With only five players being selected it's fairly likely no Fire players are taken by LAFC, but it's arguable that de Leeuw will end up being one of the best five players available. The 31-year-old tied for the team lead with eight assists and scored three goals.

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.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”