Fire

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

It’s amazing the difference a year has made for the Chicago Fire.

At this time last year the Fire were coming off having the worst record in Major League Soccer and looked headed to another year at the bottom. The team’s attack was toothless when David Accam was injured and any early optimism in the first year for general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic waned.

In the first of three organized meetings with reporters last year, Rodriguez admitted the team’s record wasn’t good enough and preached patience. Things didn’t get much better for the Fire, which finished last for the second year in a row.

This offseason, Rodriguez made a number of big moves and the early returns are positive on most of them. Dax McCarty has vastly improved the team’s midfield and possession play, with goalkeeper Matt Lampson calling him the team’s MVP after practice on Tuesday. Nemanja Nikolic leads the league in goals, something unthinkable in the first half of last year when the Fire struggled to get one or two shots on target, let alone goals, during a match. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the big name player fans have been waiting years for and he has delivered on the $5.4 million price tag.

When Rodriguez fielded questions from reporters for an hour on Tuesday, the Fire had the third most points in Major League Soccer. He could have referenced the patience he called for a year ago and boasted about the vindication. Instead, he said, as coach Veljko Paunovic did in the past week, that the team still hasn’t accomplished anything.

“For sure I sleep a little better,” Rodriguez said. “For sure you can’t wait for the next game even sooner, especially when you’re on a good patch I think. There’s so much ground yet to cover. This is a very difficult league to prognosticate and predict, even from week-to-week.

“I think it’s my job to try to see through the results, again continue to measure our process and how we’re progressing against that process to try to make sure that we don’t have any blind spots to ourselves and what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. To push the group to constantly self-reflect and improve.”

[MORE FIRE: Tough tests in next two months should show a lot about Fire]

Rodriguez also said the Fire’s positive start hasn’t changed his expectations for this season either.

“We have to be a little bit modest, given that we as a club have struggled for so many years,” he said. “The first bar, and it’s a low bar, but it’s the playoffs.

“Our expectations were to make the playoffs. Our expectations were to contend or win the Open Cup championship and those continue to hold.”

He did admit that “skepticism is understandable” from fans who have seen the team struggle for several years. Schweinsteiger’s arrival and the team’s improved record have created what he described as a momentum, and not just on the field.

“There’s certainly a buzz,” Rodriguez said. “There’s also still that small, but loud group of wallowers who are just hoping that the wheels come off or still want different players than the ones we acquired. That will still be there, perhaps until we win a championship. Overall, I think there is an excitement that’s building.”

This is the high point of Rodriguez's still-young tenure with the club. The Fire feature a World Cup winner, have one of the best records in the league and there’s a buzz around the team. What a difference a year makes, indeed.

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.