Fire look for fast start to season at Columbus

Fire look for fast start to season at Columbus

The excitement of a new season just around the corner was in full effect for the Chicago Fire.

The team made some upgrades in the offseason and head into Saturday's match at Columbus with genuine reason for optimism. The season opener will be live on CSN with coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

All the excitement leading into a season opener came to a bit of a halt when news broke on Friday that one of those key offseason acquisitions, Brazilian midfielder Juninho, will be suspended for Saturday's match in Columbus. Juninho will be out due to a red card received in his last game with Mexican club Tijuana in November. Paul Tenorio first broke the news on twitter.

Juninho's absence will mean the anticipated central midfield pairing of him and Dax McCarty will have to wait until next week's home opener against Real Salt Lake.

Matt Polster would have been the likely replacement in central midfield, but he has been out for most of the preseason with a knee injury and is not available for Saturday's match. That makes the possible replacements John Goossens, who has been used more as a winger with the Fire but has also played centrally, and Drew Conner, a second-year homegrown center mid who did not make any appearances with the Fire last season. Another option is to have Joao Meira, a central defender who at times played in the midfield last season, take Juninho's spot and go with Jonathan Campbell and Johan Kappelhof as the centerback pairing.

Regardless of who is available, in the week leading up to Saturday's match, the Fire had talked about the importance of getting off to a hot start this season.

"I think the staff is pretty confident about the season, but we want to stay on the ground," coach Veljko Paunovic said. "We want to build expectations as the season starts and move forward. That's what I'm emphasizing and focusing on because it doesn't mean the good start will give you a great season, but it's important."

One of the interesting dynamics with the match will be Columbus' possession-based style against the Fire's ability to counter. The Crew led MLS in possession last season while the Fire were last. While the Fire may have relied on the counter anyway, not being able to see how Juninho and McCarty match up against a possession-based team would have been a good early test for the Fire's new midfield.

[RELATED: 2017 MLS Eastern Conference preview]

Columbus' front four is the same as last year with Ola Kamara coming off a 16-goal season (in just 25 matches and 20 starts) and playmaker Federico Higuain and wingers Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay in support. Kamara's participation in the match is also uncertain. He is listed as questionable on the injury report due to "concussion symptoms."

Columbus' defense has been reworked a bit with the acquisition of Ghanaian national teamer Jonathan Mensah. The center back will likely play alongside countryman Harrison Afful, a right back. That means Fire winger David Accam will be facing off against some familiar faces and national team teammates on Saturday.

The goalkeepers for both teams will be making MLS debuts. Jorge Bava, another offseason signing, is expected to start with the Fire. Returning keeper Matt Lampson is questionable with a knee injury that limited him this preseason. Columbus will start 21-year-old Zack Steffen, who the club acquired from Bundesliga club Freiburg late in the 2016 season.

The two teams were the bottom two in the Eastern Conference last season, but are both expecting to be better in 2017.

"There is a very good tough opponent that we have to face on the road," Paunovic said. "We know that our record in the past wasn't great on the road. That's where we have to change the mentality and this is the opportunity."

After finishing last in the league for two straight years, the Fire are hoping to prove this season and this team is different. Nemanja Nikolic, a newcomer to the team, emphasized the importance of starting with a win.

"If we win it gets our confidence up for every player, for the team, for the supporters," Nikolic said.

Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew

When: Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.

Where: Mapfre Stadium, Columbus, Ohio


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

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


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, 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.