Fire

2017 MLS Eastern Conference preview

2017 MLS Eastern Conference preview

In most American sports most teams saying they improved is just preseason optimism. However, the international player pool of soccer means every MLS team actually can get better quite easily and it appears the bar is higher in the league.

The Eastern Conference has been the lesser of the two conference in Major League Soccer in recent years, and while it still probably isn't as deep as the Western Conference, there are some strong teams at the top.

Last year, the New York Red Bulls finished with the most points in the regular season with 57, three ahead of New York City FC and four ahead of Toronto FC. Toronto got hot in the playoffs and went all the way to MLS Cup. Those three teams are figure to be in the mix again, but there might also be a couple sleepers looking to move up in 2017.

Here's a capsule on all 11 teams:

A class above?

Toronto FC

Toronto faded late in the regular season to settle for the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, but got hot come playoff time and finally delivered on the promise of the talent on the roster. Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are still in Canada so TFC remains one of the most talented teams in the league. Victor Vazquez now joins the team as an attacking midfielder with Barcelona roots and could fill a long-time need for the Reds: creativity in the midfield. An already scary attack may have gotten better.

Expecting playoffs

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls had an unexpectedly wild offseason. From trading captain Dax McCarty to seeing sporting director Ali Curtis leave the club, things got interesting this winter in Harrison. Without any big player additions, coach Jesse Marsch will be relying on some of the team’s younger players to take steps forward. Can Sean Davis fill in for McCarty? Can a fairly unproven defense prove to be steady enough? The Red Bulls still have plenty of talent with the likes of Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips leading the attack, but they are a candidate to take a step back as a team in 2017.

New York City FC

The blue team in New York made a ton of changes this offseason. NYCFC had 11 players depart and 12 players come in. Six players who made 10 or more starts in 2016 are part of the group that left, including Frank Lampard. Taking Lampard's Designated Player spot is attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez. The key will be how these pieces fit together. Patrick Vieira preferred a 4-3-3 formation last season so finding a way Moralez, along with midfielders Tommy McNamara and Andrea Pirlo, fits in that effectively could determine if NYCFC improves or regresses from last year’s 54 point season.

Contenders

Montreal Impact

The Impact lost Didier Drogba, who at times carried the Impact. However, last year Montreal became Ignacio Piatti's team and as long as he's there, the Impact should be a playoff team. To be more than a team filling out the postseason field, Montreal will need Matteo Mancosu, who joined in the middle of 2016, to turn into a frontline scorer for the duration of the season. He had four goals and two assists in five playoff games last year.

D.C. United

D.C. finished the regular season as one of the hottest teams to get in the playoffs with a home game, but fizzled out once there. No team does patchwork success quite like D.C. Challenging for the playoffs on a budget has been the recipe for D.C., but it hasn't always worked. This year, the starting lineup doesn't have any glaring holes and there is a lot of buzz about rookie homegrown signing Ian Harkes (yes, that's John Harkes' son).

Expansion team

Atlanta United FC

No team is as intriguing as Atlanta for a few reasons. First, the expansion team has surpassed 30,000 tickets sold. Second, those fans will be cheering on the team in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a state of the art, billion dollar-plus venue. Also, the team has brought in a ton of talent. This is not a typical expansion team. Bringing in Tata Martino, who has coached two heavyweights in Barcelona and Argentina, has helped the team attract high level talent that is still young. The Designated Player trio of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba plus striker Kenwyne Jones, who has scored 40 goals in the Premier League, and American national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan, joining midseason, give Martino plenty of toys to work with. As an expansion team there will still be pitfalls along the way, but expectations are high and failing to miss the playoffs would probably be viewed a disappointment.

[RELATED: 2017 MLS Eastern Conference preview]

Fighting to get in the playoffs

Columbus Crew

The Crew went from hosting MLS Cup to finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference in a year. After giving up 58 goals in 2016, Columbus focused on improving its defense in the winter. In came Ghanaian national teamer Jonathan Mensah, a pair of new fullbacks in Jukka Raitala from Norway and No. 5 draft pick Lalas Abubakar and a pair of defensive mids in Mohammed Abu and Artur. Zack Steffen, a 21-year-old goalkeeper, has a ton of potential and was named the starter for the season opener against the Fire. Coach Gregg Berhalter will have to get the pieces to mesh early on, but there are still returning pieces to like higher up the field with Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain and Ola Kamara (coming off a 16-goal season). If the new defensive pieces flop, 2017 could be much like 2016 in Ohio, but if they hit it might resemble 2015.

Philadelphia Union

Haris Medunjanin could be the key to how everything fits together in Philly. The central midfielder from Bosnia played in the 2014 World Cup and fills a big need for the Union. Him and U.S. national teamer Alejandro Bedoya could form one of the best central midfield duos in the league. There are questions in central defense and up front though.

Chicago Fire

Fire fans: it's OK to be a bit optimistic about this team. It actually has the credentials to be improved. Of course, improving from last place is no accomplishment, but the Fire legitimately can believe in the postseason this season. Juninho and Dax McCarty give the team an overhauled midfield engine and the forward pairing of Michael de Leeuw and Nemanja Nikolic should be efficient in finishing off chances. Goalkeeper, the back line, overall team depth and chance creation remain areas of concern, but it is generally agreed that the Fire had a productive offseason. How far up the standings the Fire move this season is the question, but the Fire should at least be in contention for a playoff spot at the end of the season.

New England Revolution

The Revs didn't make many major moves this winter, which makes it easy to think 2017 will be more of the same in New England. The big X-factor is Xavier Kouassi, a defensive mid the club signed as a Designated Player last offseason only to see him miss the season with a knee injury. Few teams have as many exciting pieces in the attack, but they haven't always fit well together. After missing out on the playoffs on goal differential, New England likely sits around the playoff bubble again in 2017.

Orlando City SC

Almost every team can at least argue it improved in the offseason. Orlando might have a tougher time making that argument. Selling Kevin Molino to Minnesota left a big hole in the team's attack. Molino had 11 goals and eight assists in 2016. Those are big numbers to replace. Any team with Kaka and Cyle Larin still is dangerous in the attack and adding Giles Barnes will help give those two support, but Jonathan Spector is the team’s only other notable addition. The Lions need more help on a defense that gave up a league-worst 60 goals last season. Jason Kreis has his work cut out for him in his first full year in Florida.

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

The Fire have secured the transfer of midfielder Aleksandar Katai from Deportivo Alavés of the Spanish La Liga, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

This season’s breakout playmaker has been signed with Chicago through 2019, with a 2020 club option. Before the transfer, Katai was on loan from Alavés, which was set to expire after July.

The Serbian player has emerged as one of the most important pieces of the Fire’s offense this season. Since joining the club on Feb. 6, Katai has scored eight goals in 18 league matches, tying forward Nemanja Nikolić for the most on the team. Katai also has three assists in 2018.

The 27-year-old’s biggest game of the year came against New York City FC last month when he scored two goals to lead the Fire to 3-2 victory. His production this season in the MLS has been much more significant than it was in 23 matches with Alavés, where Katai only tallied three goals and four assists.

His transfer fee is unknown but, according to Sam Stejskal of MLSsoccer.com, he will be a “Targeted Allocation Money player” for the rest of this season and will not be a Designated Player until 2019. Whatever the official price was, acquiring Katai for a lengthier amount of time seemed like a must.

Throughout this season, the Fire were rumored to be in talks with legendary Spanish striker Fernando Torres. On Tuesday, he signed with Sagan Tosu, a Japanese club. The Fire signed Katai the next day, showing that the team was possibly waiting for Torres to leave the market.

Chicago will face the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night at Toyota Park, where Katai will look to continue his impressive season.

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof was involved in a car accident on his way to practice Thursday morning that sent him to the hospital with minor injuries.

According to authorities and the Secretary of State’s Office, a box truck crashed into the Dutch player’s 2013 Volkswagen and another vehicle in the 5900 block of South Harlem. Kappelhof’s vehicle rolled over and two people fled from the scene.

The driver ran on foot and the passenger moved into the driver’s seat before driving the truck onto the Stevenson Expressway after the crash, officials said. After the damaged vehicle broke down, police say the same passenger tried to jump into the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Both were taken into custody.

Team officials said Kappelhof was treated and released from the hospital without indicators of a concussion. The 27-year-old was reportedly seen at Toyota Park after the crash and did not have any serious injuries. The other driver who was hit by the box truck was also treated, police said.

This season in league play with the Fire, Kappelhof has three assists in 16 games. The international product was a 2017 MLS All-Star and the Defensive Player of the Year for the Fire last season. He was signed in 2016 and has made one MLS Cup Playoffs appearance.