Fire

Fire head to Lions' den in meeting of two of Eastern Conference's best

Fire head to Lions' den in meeting of two of Eastern Conference's best

There have not been many big games for the Chicago Fire in the past few years.

The team’s struggles prevented many truly important games in Major League Soccer. This year, though, things have changed.

The Fire have won four in a row and have the second best record in the league. None of the opponents during the Fire's run have been teams in playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but that changes on Sunday.

The Fire (7-3-3, 24 points) head to Orlando (7-5-2, 23 points) in a meeting between two of the top four teams in the conference. The Lions are 6-1-1 at home this season, although they have won just one of the last three in Orlando City Stadium after winning the first five in their new home.

“They’re obviously really good at home so I think we’re expecting them to come out hard the first 10-15 minutes and try and put a lot of pressure on us,” Fire defender Matt Polster said. “I think the goal is to kind of weather the storm a little bit and then after the 15 minutes start to control the pace of the game to what we like and try and take over possession.”

The Fire will be without midfielder Dax McCarty, who is with the national team. Orlando could also be without Brazilian playmaker Kaka. He has been out the past two games due to a calf injury and his status is still unknown, although he did return to training this week.

Whether or not Kaka plays, Cyle Larin will be a key figure for the Fire to watch. Larin has eight goals this season and already 39 in his three-year career.

“He has good hold up play and he can finish,” Polster said. “We just have to limit the chances. They’re good on set pieces so we need to limit those and when he gets near the ball we just need to be a little more tuned in and stop his rhythm a little bit.”

Orlando is coming off a 2-0 win against D.C. United on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Fire had the weekend off after beating FC Dallas on May 25.

Orlando’s win snapped a six-game winless run (two draws, four losses). In that run, Orlando got shut out three times, including a 3-0 loss in Florida to New York City FC.

“They have great support, a great crowd, a new stadium, great atmosphere, but overall they have very good and quality players,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “On our end we believe we have everything what we need to be the good rival and get a win.”

It’s still the first half of the season, but both teams appear to be favorites to make the playoffs at this point. Beating a playoff contender on the road, especially one that has such a strong home record, would be another notch on the Fire’s belt.

“I think this is the first time I can see everyone on the same page,” Paunovic said. “I think the guys are very committed, everyone sees the opportunity to make one of the best seasons for our club in the last many years. We have that great opportunity and we are working towards improving our style overall during the next months.”

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.