Fire

Five questions for the Fire in 2016

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Five questions for the Fire in 2016

The 2016 Major League Soccer season is just three days away. Every team’s opening match will be on Sunday, March 6.

The Chicago Fire kick things off at 1 p.m. against New York City FC on CSN Chicago. What will the team look like when it takes the field?

So many new faces have come in. More than half the roster was acquired in the offseason. That makes for a lot of question marks about the team.

With that in mind here are five of the biggest questions facing the team as the 2016 season unfolds.

How will the brand new defense fare?

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said reworking and improving the defense was a top priority in the offseason. Only two defenders, Eric Gehrig and Patrick Doody, are back from last season. First round draft picks Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell, internationals Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos and MLS free agent Michael Harrington have been added.

After conceding the most goals in the league in 2015 (58), how this unit fares will have a massive influence on how successful the Fire are in 2016.

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How will Paunovic’s system look?

First-year coach Veljko Paunovic has the tough task of turning around a last place team with a largely rebuilt roster. The changes may be for the best, but that means the team will have to learn quickly how to play in his style. Based on the preseason it appears the Fire will try to build out of the back and high press. Paunovic showed some tactical flexibility, something he has talked about throughout the preseason, in Saturday’s win at Portland. How well his adjustments and style work will be something to watch.

What midseason moves will be made?

Rodriguez said on Monday that the team is still looking to acquire players and is in negotiations with some foreign-based players. After focusing on defense in the offseason, Rodriguez said that central midfield is the new priority. In addition, there aren’t many wide players on the roster. Only David Accam, Arturo Alvarez and rookies Joey Calistri and Alex Morrell appear to be primarily wide players.

On top of that the Fire only have two forwards, three if you count Accam as a forward, in Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike. Rodriguez has mentioned wanting to add depth at forward, but that sounds like a lower priority at the moment.

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Can the young players step up?

The Fire have five rookies and three second-year players. Nine players are 23 or younger when you throw in 20-year-old Ramos. Given how much has been said about Paunovic’s history working with younger players, it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

How much will they play? Will they make notable improvement throughout the season?

If the preseason is any indicator, only two or three of the younger players will start the season opener. If more are able to crack the starting lineup in the short-term that could be a sign of Paunovic’s willingness to play youth.

Will the Fire make the playoffs?

This is ultimately the biggest question. None of the above matters as much as the bottom line.

The Fire have been a struggling franchise, going six years with just one postseason appearance. A playoff appearance would restore some excitement in the fan base and give hope that the team is headed in the right direction. Enough pieces have been added to believe things will change, but how much improvement can be made in one offseason?

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.