Richard Sanchez

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.

Notes from the rewatch: Richard Sanchez's first start, Djordje Mihailovic's first goal

Notes from the rewatch: Richard Sanchez's first start, Djordje Mihailovic's first goal

On paper, Wednesday's game in San Jose was going to be very hard for the Fire.

The team was coming off a bad road loss in Philadelphia three days earlier and rotated a lot of the starting lineup with a big game coming up against New York City FC. The Fire delivered one of the best performances of the season and two of the key performers were not regular starters.

Richard Sanchez made eight saves in his first Fire appearance and Djordje Mihailovic scored his first MLS goal to give the Fire an early lead. How good were the two young players?

Sanchez's oddly busy first start

The score said 4-1 and it was 4-0 until the final minutes of the game, but Sanchez was very busy between the posts in San Jose. He had to make eight saves, the most for a Fire goalkeeper since Matt Lampson made nine saves in Vancouver on May 11, 2016.

Sanchez had one tough save to make in the first half, a hammered free kick by Danny Hoesen that was right at Sanchez. He held his ground and did well to not give up a rebound on that, instead blocking it away from danger.

In the second half, after the Fire took a 3-0 lead in the 48th minute, San Jose put an onslaught on the Fire's goal. San Jose had 12 shots in the second half, 10 of which came in the final 25 minutes. This save below was Sanchez's best highlight.

The ball appeared to have smacked off his face, but it's his positioning that deserves credit. He was in the right spot and made himself big so he didn't have to make a reaction save. He was already where the ball was most likely to wind up.

Sanchez didn't show anything notable, good or bad, in his distribution. He came out well for crosses on occasion, although he did fail to get a strong fist to a corner he attempted to clear in the 70th minute. Overall, it was a strong first start for the 23-year-old, one worthy of starting a legitimate goalkeeper battle with Lampson.

Strange final numbers

As mentioned, the Fire dropped back with a three-goal lead early in the second half and allowed San Jose to dictate play. The Earthquakes ended up creating a lot of opportunities and on another day could have been in this match. The Fire dominated the first half and deserved to have a two-goal lead at the break, but a pair of mistakes by San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell made the game a blowout.

While Sanchez was having a solid game, Tarbell turned the ball over deep in his own end with a bad pass that led to the third goal. On the fourth goal, he came off his line to challenge Michael de Leeuw on a breakaway. De Leeuw chipped Tarbell, who froze on the shot. Nemanja Nikolic, like any good goal poacher, continued to chase after the shot and won the race for the rebound after the chip hit the bar and bounced back into play. A goalkeeper who can use his hands to punch away a ball should never lose a race to a ball with a player forced to used his head.

The Fire probably don't drop as deep without that third goal and maybe they can maintain the pressure of the first half, but it's reasonable to think that without Tarbell's two mistakes the game could have had a very close finish. San Jose outshot the Fire 20-14, although the Fire maintained a 10-9 edge in shots on target, and nearly got possession back to 50-50 after the Fire controlled the first half. It's crazy to think a three-goal game was decided by the goalkeepers, but Tarbell cost his team two goals and Sanchez might have saved the Fire one.

Mihailovic's positive performance in a new role

The Fire's teenage homegrown player had three MLS starts before Wednesday. All of them were in attacking roles, either centrally or out wide. In San Jose, Mihailovic played as one of the deep midfielders alongside Dax McCarty.

When Mihailovic had played in attacking midfield spots, he tended to get lost in the game. Maybe he didn't know where to be or maybe he was failing to be assertive enough to get involved. Either way, that wasn't a problem in the deeper role on Wednesday.

His skillset has led many to believe that he is somewhat of a classic playmaker, but he also seems to have the profile of a deeper midfielder. For one, his pressing ability is among the best on the team. That has shown whenever he is on the field. It's not traditional defensive play that is needed as a defensive midfielder, but it can be enough when a veteran like McCarty is next to him. He also is smooth enough on the ball to not turn the ball over too many times in traffic, something that Drew Conner struggled with the previous two games.

Mihailovic still made some mistakes, one turnover in the 32nd minute which resulted in San Jose getting a free kick just outside the box. He also showed good connecting play going forward. Check out this give-and-go with Nikolic.

Mihailovic completed 56 out of 64 passes, including 39 out of 42 in the first half, and scored his first MLS goal.

Here's a deeper look at his goal, which featured a nice job of filling the space up top as de Leeuw dropped deep to play a pass.

A goal worth a special mention

The Fire have had a few goals with extended strings of passes this season and added another Wednesday. The second goal was a 17-pass sequence that resulted in a crazy volley cross assist from de Leeuw.

Former Mexican youth international goalkeeper Richard Sanchez sees joining Fire as 'great opportunity'

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USA TODAY

Former Mexican youth international goalkeeper Richard Sanchez sees joining Fire as 'great opportunity'

When Jorge Bava’s elbow injury required season-ending surgery, the Chicago Fire suddenly needed another goalkeeper.

In his place, the Fire signed Richard Sanchez. The 23-year-old is a product of the FC Dallas academy and signed with the club as a homegrown player.

Internationally, Sanchez has represented Mexico at the under-17 and under-20 levels, including El Tri’s triumph in the 2011 U-17 World Cup in Mexico. On the club level, he was most recently under contract with Tigres in Mexico’s Liga MX.

“My contract ended with Tigres over in Monterrey,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t agree to some terms so now my contract runs out and I was a free agent. I was training on my own, kind of doing gym sessions and personal training on my own with some other goalkeeper coach. I also trained with FC Dallas before and was kind of getting ready for whatever was to come.”

What came was Sanchez signing with MLS and going through the league’s allocation process for returning players. It’s one of the more confusing mechanisms in MLS, but the end result was the Fire sending a third round pick in next year’s draft to Portland to move up in the allocation order and then using that spot to sign Sanchez on Aug. 11.

Sanchez said his intention was to come back to MLS to get playing time and experience after his Tigres contract ran out.

“I thought I can grow and look for some minutes and that’s kind of the opportunity that popped up in Chicago,” Sanchez said. “Through the allocation process and the re-entry process of MLS, it’s kind of weird is probably the word that you can use, but hey, it gave me a great opportunity here in Chicago. They picked up my rights so I’m glad to be here and I’m glad to be a part of this team.

“Everybody has been good so I’m just adapting now to the city, to the people here and hoping to help the team.”

Sanchez said he likes coach Veljko Paunovic’s style of focusing on possession and building out of the back. That is what Sanchez said he was used to from his time in Mexico.

Professional minutes have been hard to come by for Sanchez, who didn’t make any appearances for Dallas or Tigres. His only first-team appearances have come on loans to lower tier leagues. Regardless, Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said he likes Sanchez’s resume and skillset.

“Richard gives us a player who knows the league, who knows pressure moments, who’s experienced in division one football,” Rodriguez said last week. “Whether or not that translates to a longer stay with us, again we’ll have to feel that out a little bit, see how much he likes Chicago and what our program is about and then see if it remains a fit for him.”

Sanchez joins starter Matt Lampson and rookie Stefan Cleveland as the Fire’s goalkeepers. For now, Sanchez is still integrating into the team and the system, but if he impresses enough he could be competing for playing time next year.

“Obviously you want to compete for the job and what they look for is that competitiveness within the group so of course I think that’s the expectation they have for me is to bring some good competition within this group, add to what they’ve already built up to this moment and in my case, a goalkeeper’s case, just help out Lampson and Stefan to be better," Sanchez said. "That’s kind of what I’m here for.”