Fire's schedule is slow now, but not for long

Fire's schedule is slow now, but not for long

Right now it’s the calm before the storm for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire were off this weekend and will return against D.C. United on April 30. That match will conclude a stretch in which five of the first seven games of 2016 took place at Toyota Park.

Then the Fire will have to sit through another off weekend. The weird part in the schedule is that two off weekends out of three are followed by a stretch of four matches in 11 days.

Wednesday matches at Vancouver and the New York Red Bulls sandwich a Saturday, May 14, match in New England. Three road games against three 2015 playoff teams will be tough for the Fire, and shows how important it was for the club to rack up points from this early season stretch. A home match against Houston on May 21 caps off four matches in four different cities and three different time zones, in 11 days. Going from playing one match in the span of 24 days to playing four in 11 is a tough transition that came about through a weird quirk in the MLS schedule.

As much as the current lull gives coach Veljko Paunovic extra time in practice, the team had multiple two-a-days this past week, the crowded batch of games looming will test the team’s depth.

“It’s a great opportunity to increase load,” Paunovic said of the off week on Tuesday. “Also we believe we have to do more of the full field games and more situations from the game where all those pieces that we are talking about we have to put them all together and work on the field in details and how we want to play and manage this next game.”

Paunovic had the team play a full field intrasquad scrimmage on Friday at UIC. It was red vs. white and the red team won 2-1. The red team got goals from John Goossens and Gilberto, on a penalty kick, while Razvan Cocis scored on an assist from Arturo Alvarez for the white team.

Analyzing the lineups for an intrasquad scrimmage is difficult, but there are a few things worth mentioning. First, that’s Eric Gehrig playing right back. Joao Meira and Academy player Mauricio Pineda, one of the Academy's top prospects, paired at center back and Gehrig, on his way back from injury, played on the right.

Also, Sean Johnson’s return to goal is notable, even if he hasn’t played yet in 2016. Johnson had not been able to train with the goalkeepers for a couple weeks, instead playing as a field player, due to a wrist injury. Matt Lampson has been the starter all year while Patrick McLain started on Saturday for St. Louis FC to get him some game action.

While the games aren’t coming often now, Paunovic will have to rotate the lineup during that busy stretch in May. Players like Gehrig and Brandon Vincent, who played next to three other defenders in that scrimmage who have become regular starters, will likely be called upon for bigger roles than they have recently. That stretch in the Fire’s schedule will be tough for the team to get results, but it should also be a great opportunity to learn a lot more about the team.

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.