Nelson Rodriguez

Veljko Paunovic in search of consistency as Fire begin preseason

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Veljko Paunovic in search of consistency as Fire begin preseason

When Nelson Rodriguez took over as Fire general manager towards the end of the 2015 season, he talked about a long-term plan. As him and coach Veljko Paunovic enter the third year together, 2018 represents a significant season for the duo.

While the regular season success of last year showed significant progress, the early playoff exit showed there is still further to go for the Fire to become the “championship program” Rodriguez speaks of repeatedly. Tuesday marked the first day of training for the Fire in 2018 even though the roster, by Rodriguez’s own admission, is “incomplete.”

The rookie class, which features two top 10 draft picks in Jon Bakero and Mo Adams and a homegrown signing in Grant Lillard who likely would have been in that range as well had he been eligible for the draft, could help improve the team. On the flip side, the trade of David Accam leaves a big hole in the attack.

Tuesday’s training session at the Toyota Park Dome in Bridgeview marked the first time for the rookies and other new arrivals to train with the Fire. At this point fitness is more of a focus than during the season, but Paunovic has other goals in mind as well.

“Getting the new guys on the same page with the other guys in terms of how we train, what our values, how we behave, what is our work ethic and everything that we have to introduce to them in the first week,” Paunovic said. “On the other side we are also working on our fitness and from the first day we will start to work on our style and just remind the guys who are returning from the last year and the new guys have to get on the same page as everyone else.”

Rodriguez said he was excited by the opening of camp, but also told the players beforehand that nothing is guaranteed.

“Everything needs to be earned,” Rodriguez said. “The returning players and the veterans maybe have a little bit of a head start, but nothing is promised other than we will make every decision that we think is in the best interest of winning, upholding our values and serving our community.”

The group was a bit short-handed on Tuesday with Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster both in national team camp and Johan Kappelhof not having traveled to the U.S. while he awaits the birth of a child. Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic are working out to recover from ACL tears, but won’t be with the group.

Three trialists are on the training camp roster: winger Josh Gatt, Uruguayan defender Maxi Moreira and goalkeeper Sam Howard. Gatt is notable for being a speedstar in his prime with then-Norwegian champions Molde, but knee injuries have limited him since. The 26-year-old American played with Colorado and Minnesota last year, his first in MLS, and had his option declined after the season. There were two players from the Fire’s academy in training as well.

With so many faces not there yet and likely future additions still to be made, the team doesn’t yet resemble what will be on display for the season opener on March 10. However, Paunovic is hoping to see consistency to improve upon last year.

“I think last year we just showed what we are capable of and this year we have to have more consistency in everything we do on and off the field,” he said. “I think we established our style, but I’m going to start with the defense. I think we allowed too many goals, sometimes too innocent and not being concentrated and focused on what’s going on on the field. We could have avoided all that and that’s the first thing we want to improve. Then I think it’s going to be very important to work on our set pieces, offensive set pieces, which we didn’t have a good year last year. These are the things that you can immediately see and recognize that have to improve.”

What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

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What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

For much of this winter, it appeared the Fire would enter 2018 with much of the same team that had the third best record in the league in 2017.

There were only minor surprises when the team announced which options it picked up and which players were cut loose. Homegrown signing Grant Lillard was the first addition of the offseason on Jan. 10 and that was expected after he completed his college career.

However, Nelson Rodriguez was apparently busy in the week leading up to the draft and saw that work turned into three trades on Friday. The Fire got two picks in the top 10 and sent away two starters from last year, including key winger David Accam.

There were already holes to fill on the roster, but the exits of Accam and goalkeeper Matt Lampson mean there are a couple more position needs with training camp starting on Monday.

“The roster is very much incomplete,” Rodriguez said after the draft. “There’s still quite a bit of work left to do. While it’s ideal to go into training camp with something that more closely resembles the roster that you’re looking to get into the season with. In our case, it is more important that we continue to add pieces that we think fit our style, fit our mentality, fit our philosophy and it’s important now that we remain disciplined in that pursuit and not feel pressure to just close the deal.”

A look at a potential starting lineup based on the current roster isn’t by any means bad, but it does need some improvement to match or improve upon last year.

Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty again give the Fire an elite central midfield pairing, Nemanja Nikolic is back after winning the Golden Boot in his first year and the defense should be somewhat solid depending on how Lillard and Jonathan Campbell fill in for the departed Joao Meira. However, goalkeeper is a question mark with Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland having two MLS appearances between them and Nikolic needs help in the attack with Accam and Arturo Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic expected to be out until at least July while recovering from torn ACLs.

Seeing Accam leave seemed like an inevitability at some point after years of rumors and complaints. Now that it’s a reality, it’s up to Rodriguez and the Fire to deliver an attack that can be productive without him after he had 14 goals and eight assists last year.

Second-year player Daniel Johnson is the immediate fill-in for Accam. He showed flashes of his potential last year as a rookie, but was limited to 125 after dealing with multiple injuries in 2017. Jon Bakero has the ability to step in underneath Nikolic, but that is an important role to throw at a rookie. The Fire’s dip at the end of last season coincided with de Leeuw’s injury so getting production out of that spot will be important.

The Fire could probably do just fine with one of Johnson or Bakero playing significant minutes in the first half of the season, but both? That’s asking an awful lot out of inexperienced players and it’s why the attack is likely where other moves will come.

Rodriguez said after the draft that there had been more trades in the works and some may still happen.

“We were very aggressive in Florida and here in Philadelphia in trying to make trades within the league and we were unsuccessful,” he said. “Some of those opportunities were by design, by our pursuit. There are still some opportunities which we wish to continue exploring and we will continue to make efforts.”

Rodriguez said the Accam trade gave the team “a lot of flexibility.” The allocation money gives the Fire an expanded salary cap of sorts to work with. Rodriguez said it “further opens up targets in the league” and he also added that they have specific players in mind.

“We also have three targets in particular outside of MLS,” he said. “I would say it’s possible given our current stated resources, our salary budget against the cap, it’s possible to potentially add two of those. Again, those are international deals. You first have to get the deal done before you can worry about the salary budget implications, but we will continue to be deliberate in our actions and disciplined in our attention.”

The Fire's roster is at 21, with two of those going to miss half the season due to injury, after finishing last season with 30.

As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

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USA TODAY

As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

General manager Nelson Rodriguez has taken his time this offseason, but things have been picked up in the past week and will continue to do so with the draft taking place on Friday.

Rodriguez spoke with reporters on a conference call a day after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s return became official and just hours after Jorge Bava’s exit and the Cam Lindley trade were announced as expected. Those topics and plenty more were discussed serving as a state of the team with offseason activity ramping up.

First off, the big news remains Schweinsteiger’s return. Rodriguez would not disclose the German’s salary, but did say that there is no option for a second year on the contract. The two sides would have to renegotiate just like they did this winter for him to return in 2019.

“Both parties were keenly interested in continuing the relationship so I think that made things a lot easier,” Rodriguez said. “There are always some little details that need to be worked out and I think that’s what prolonged the discussions, but I believe both parties felt reasonably confident that we would continue together.”

Elsewhere, the finalization of the Lindley trade allowed Rodriguez to discuss some of the details of the breakdown in negotiations with the homegrown prospect. The Fire sent the rights to Lindley to Orlando for Rafa Ramos and $100,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (broken down as $50,000 in both 2018 and 2019). Lindley signed a four-year contract with Orlando.

The Fire approached Lindley last winter, but he returned to North Carolina for his sophomore season.

“When we spoke this year, Cameron indicated that he would prefer to start his career outside of Chicago and so we were able to fulfill that wish for him, but in the process we thought we did very well for ourselves in acquiring a very talented, young player with professional experience and then on top of that getting allocation money, which can serve us,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s an instance where it’s a win-win for Orlando and for us.”

Ramos, 23, will likely be the backup to both Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent. Lindley is a 20-year-old central midfielder who could have provided depth behind Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty this year.

When asked why Lindley didn’t want to sign with the Fire, Rodriguez said he didn’t ask Lindley.

“I’m only concerned with players who are in our locker room and want to play for us,” Rodriguez said.

Bava’s exit was under different circumstances. The 36-year-old goalkeeper expressed a desire to return to his home country of Uruguay, which he was able to do by landing with Liverpool FC Montevideo. The Fire and Bava mutually agreed to terminate his contract.

“He came to us and let us know that he had a playing opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “I think the second part of it is that we indicated to Jorge that we were very comfortable with Matt (Lampson) and Richard (Sanchez) and that it was going to be difficult for him to unseat one or both of those guys.”

Those moves put the Fire’s roster at 21 heading into Friday’s draft. The first two rounds will take place in Philadelphia starting at 10 a.m. The Fire have the 15th and 38th picks.

Rodriguez said the Fire’s draft is very different this year after having the top pick in 2016 and the third pick in 2017. The Fire traded both of those picks.

“With the first pick and the third pick, teams generally come to you,” Rodriguez said. “My experience is that there are several teams going for the clubs that hold those top three spots now so it’s almost flipped in that if we want to be active, no one is looking to move up to 15.

“I wouldn’t discount our making a trade because we have had conversations, admittedly all with teams ahead of us in the draft, no one below us in the draft. But some of that may be dependant upon how the draft actually goes. Usually you lock in on one or two players, you don’t want to necessarily trade up without knowing either or both of those players might be available. It might be a situation that occurs during the draft as opposed to prior to the draft.”

As for other potential additions, Rodriguez didn’t say much. He wouldn’t comment on the continuing Juan Quintero rumors and reports. The news is seemingly going in both directions on that front.

Rodriguez did comment on a potential return for Juninho, the Brazilian midfielder who was on loan with the Fire last season. Mexican club Tijuana holds his rights after the loan expired.

“We told Juni and his agent that we were not going to offer a transfer to acquire his services, but if he could extricate himself from that contract, we would be interested in having him return to the club,” Rodriguez said.

When asked what he believes the roster still needs, Rodriguez said “across all our lines,” even mentioning goalkeeper as part of that. At this point most additions will be for depth, but Rodriguez mentioned the need to replace midfielder Djordje Mihailovic and forward Michael de Leeuw, both of which suffered torn ACLs last in the 2017 season. Rodriguez said they are hoping for those players to return from injury in July or August, but obviously things can change as they continue to rehab.