Fire

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez recalls busy offseason

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Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez recalls busy offseason

To say it has been a busy offseason for the Chicago Fire is a bit of an understatement.

To call it a rebuild doesn’t even do justice. This has been an entire overhaul for the Fire, not limited to the players on the field.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez was the first one put in place with the task of turning around the Fire, which have made the playoffs just once in the past six years. Rodriguez then picked out coach Veljko Paunovic, who preaches positivity and belief like it’s a religion.

Since those two have been in charge, the roster turnover began. Just 10 players from the 2015 squad remain with the Fire. Still, despite recognizing the need to make drastic changes within the club this offseason, Rodriguez's first impression after he was hired last season was about the fans.

“Surprisingly what resonated with me was how much support remained for the team," Rodriguez said. "We have to be honest, last year was a miserable season with just dire results. Yet even the last game of the regular season we find ourselves down 2-0 to New York Red Bulls, we get a goal back and the fans are just urging us on, completely supportive at all times. You could see the Red Bulls wobble a little bit on the field, which signals to me the strength and the power of our fan base. If we can give them more reason to believe and put results behind it we’re going to have a fantastic home environment.”

[MORE: Fire season opener nears following Season Kickoff Luncheon]

Once Paunovic was in tow, the pair were able to start building their vision of the Fire. Rodriguez said they share a similar view of the game, which made the process much easier.

On the flip side, Rodriguez admitted that scouting and recruitment needs some work. With a focus on acquiring international players — the Fire had just two of eight international spots filled following the trade of Joevin Jones on draft day — that became a very important aspect of the offseason. Finding and bringing in players from various countries and leagues required a slightly different approach.

“Scouting and recruitment is an area that we must improve as a club going forward so this offseason we’ve had to rely on relationships and contacts that we’ve had rather than a proactive approach to scouting and recruitment, which we’ll look to institute as soon as the summer transfer window," Rodriguez said. "We’ve been fortunate in having good people help us identify some people. We’re very methodical and meticulous to our four stages of evaluation because we really want to make sure that the person that we bring in will fit as much or even better than the talent that we bring in.”

Despite the challenge of acquiring international players without a proactive approach to scouting, Rodriguez said the busy offseason went according to plan. The Fire netted Brandon Vincent, a probable starter at left back, Jonathan Campbell, a potential long-term solution at center back, and Alex Morrell, a speedy winger who plays a position of little depth for the team. International players Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Rodrigo Ramos and John Goossens have joined and all figure to see regular playing time.

Rodriguez admits there's more to do and the team is still targeting international players in midfield, but is happy with how things have turned out.

“It’s really gone according to plan," he said. "We’re in the midst of some negotiations that we’re optimistic that we will close positively."

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So now that Sunday's season opener is just days away, making the playoffs remains the first goal. What should fans expect from the team though?

“What I expect and what the fans should demand is effort everyday in every training session and in every game," Rodriguez said. "That’s not to say we won’t have some clunkers along the way. (In a) 34-game season everyone will.

"The character expectation I have is that we will continue to work the same way. We will continue to have a positive attitude, high energy. It’s the environment that Pauno and the coaching staff has created. I expect that to carry us through those difficult moments, but you will have a team on the field that in every game and every instance will look to win. We will play to win.”

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

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NBC Sports Chicago

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

Manchester City is coming off a season in which it dominated the English Premier League to the tune of a record 100-point season.

City is kicking off the preseason of its title defense in Chicago. City takes on Borussia Dortmund at Soldier Field on Friday night.

The last time the reigning Premier League champions were in Chicago was when rivals Manchester United came to Soldier to take on the Chicago Fire in 2011.

The Citizens won’t have the full arsenal of stacked stars for its U.S. tour, which also includes stops in New York and Miami as part of the International Champions Cup. Many of the team’s best players are getting a break after playing in the World Cup. Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, one of the stars of the tournament, is one of six Man City players to reach the semifinals.

Paul Dickov, who played for City for nearly 10 years between 1996 and 2008, is on tour with the team and talked about City’s preparations.

“The reason the clubs want to come to the States and play in International Champions Cup is the facilities are fantastic, the training facilities, the hotels, the treatment they get and just give them the best preparation going into what’s going to be a hard season,” Dickov said. “Nobody has won the Premier League back-to-back titles for nearly 10 years now so it’s going to be tough. Coming here and being able to prepare the way they can in the United States is going to put them on a long way to regain the title again.”

City brought the Premier League trophy to Wrigley Field on Thursday for the Cubs-Cardinals game. Dickov got to throw out the first pitch. The Scotsman threw a strike, much to his relief.

“I was quite calm beforehand, but I must admit when I got out there and I had to walk out there both hands started getting a bit sweaty,” he said. “I managed to make it and I got a fantastic reception off the Chicago Cubs fans so thank you to everybody at Chicago Cubs for having me there. It was great. Something I’ll never forget.”


Dickov compared Cubs fans to City fans in the way both teams struggled for a long time before finding success.

“They stuck by us through thick and thin when things weren’t as great,” Dickov said of Man City fans. “I suppose it’s a little bit like the Chicago Cubs here in Chicago. The fans turn out, they get 30-40 thousand, great atmosphere, back their team.”

While promoting the game, the Premier League trophy made multiple stops in Chicago, including with the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on an off day.

City also took the trophy and new signing Riyad Mahrez, who just joined Man City from 2016 champions Leicester City, to Haas Park in Logan Square. Haas Park includes a soccer field donated by Manchester City and the American embassy of the United Arab Emirates in 2012.

“The outcome of it has been great,” Dickov said. “Thousands of children and families benefiting, not just from the soccer part of it, but the education program as well. To be down there the other day for the full day and seeing the joy in the kids face seeing soccer here and the other activities that are on is great because, yeah, football is fantastic, soccer is fantastic and when you’re out there and you play you want to win, but it’s important, especially from Manchester City’s point of view, the city and the community. The stuff that they do off the field is second to none and it’s giving something back.”

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.