Matt Lampson

Fire all over MLS year-end award finalists

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USA TODAY

Fire all over MLS year-end award finalists

When a team goes from back-to-back last place finishes to third in the league, it's not a surprise when that team is well-represented on the list of year-end award finalists.

Nemanja Nikolic (twice), Veljko Paunovic and Matt Lampson were listed as finalists for various year-end awards in MLS. In each case, voting has closed for the awards and naming finalists is simply a recognition of the top vote-getters.

Nikolic, who won the Golden Boot this year by scoring 24 goals, is one of five finalists for the Landon Donovan MVP award. Nikolic is joined by Atlanta's Miguel Almiron, Portland's Diego Valeri, New York City FC's David Villa and Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco. Valeri and Villa are considered the favorites, leaving Nikolic as a bit of a darkhorse, but as the league's leading goal-scorer he still earned some consideration.

Nikolic was also included as one of three finalists for Newcomer of the Year. Again, Nikolic's resume is hard to fight here with Almiron and Atlanta's Josef Martinez also making the final three. Martinez may have won the Golden Boot had he stayed healthy. The Venezuelan striker scored 19 goals in 20 appearances, 17 of which were starts.

Paunovic made the cut as one of three finalists for Coach of the Year. The Serbian took the Fire from last in his first year to having the third-best record in the regular season. Toronto's Greg Vanney, who guided TFC to the highest-point total in league history, and Atlanta's Tata Martino, who took an expansion team to the playoffs for the third time in league history, both probably have better resumes than Paunovic, but all three have an argument for the award.

The timing of Paunovic being announced as a finalist coincides with Serbia removing national team coach Slavoljub Muslin despite the country qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Paunovic won the Under-20 World Cup with Serbia in 2015 and likely would be interested in the job, but his relative lack of high-level experience may make Serbia pause, even for one of the country's favorite sons.

Lampson is again a finalist for Humanitarian of the Year after winning the award last year. He has worked on his LampStrong Foundation to support childhood cancer patients.

The full list of finalists is available here.

5 things to watch for during the Fire’s offseason

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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.

Dax McCarty: 'We expected three points, but the performance was something to be proud of'

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Dax McCarty: 'We expected three points, but the performance was something to be proud of'

It was surprising to hear the way the Fire talked about Saturday’s 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls.

Coach Veljko Paunovic praised his team’s performance and said it was “a great point.” Michael de Leeuw echoed the sentiments, saying the team was “happy” with the draw.

So why would the Fire be happy with a draw at home against a team below them in the standings? Allow midfielder Dax McCarty, a former Red Bulls player, to give an explanation.

“Look, we’re not happy with the result that we got against the Red Bulls,” McCarty said. “We expected three points, but the performance was something to be proud of. You can’t sit there and say you want to play pretty soccer and play 500, 600 passes against a team like Red Bull. It’s not going to happen. They’ll eat you alive. The game was ugly. The game was about second balls and I thought our mentality of winning second balls and trying to be physical and trying to run with them was really good and so that’s why the performance was a positive one.”

McCarty has consistently been a voice of reason within the group as well as someone who has always pushed for more out of the team. Early in the season he had said the team “had a long way to go,” and that was after a win. This was another example of him doing a better job of explaining something that raised some eyebrows after Saturday’s game.

After the Fire’s winning run through May and June, followed by an extended negative run in July and August, the team is in third place in the Eastern Conference. The remaining jockeying for playoff positions will be a tight race, but goalkeeper Matt Lampson said the most important thing is peaking in the playoffs.

“Pauno talked about it this morning and I think he nailed it,” Lampson said. “It doesn’t matter what we did in May or what we even did two weeks ago. We need to start peaking now and we need to start peaking in the playoffs, just like Seattle did (last year). They were not good until the playoffs. I think that’s what we need to focus on, is just continue to progress and upward trajectory throughout the end of the year and then into the playoffs hopefully. If you play your best soccer there, you’re going to do well and that’s what we’re going to focus on doing. I think we’re starting to do that. We’ve changed tactics, we’ve got guys coming back from injury and we’re getting results against good teams and in hostile environments so it’s good.”