The Chicago Fire's first preseason game is Saturday against Florida Gulf Coast and while the result won't have any bearing on the 2017 season, things can be learned about what is to come in the year ahead.
The Fire have five more preseason matches scheduled after opening against FGCU, which is currently hosting the Fire in Fort Myers, Fla.
Last year's preseason was a solid indication that results in the preseason don't mean much of anything. The Fire won all five matches that were streamed online for fan consumption and then finished last in Major League Soccer for the second straight year.
However, beyond the result, there can be clues about how the team will line up and who will be on the field. With that in mind here are five things to watch during the Fire's preseason:
How does the midfield fit together?
This offseason the Fire acquired two accomplished MLS-experienced central midfielders in their 20s in Juninho and Dax McCarty. McCarty isn't yet in camp and won't be expected to join until sometime after the U.S. national team takes on Jamaica on Friday in the second of two friendlies scheduled during the team's current camp.
Until McCarty joins up with the Fire this question can't be fully answered. However, once he arrives seeing how coach Veljko Paunovic plays him, Juninho and Matt Polster could be an indication of what Paunovic has in mind regarding the midfield. Can Polster remain a regular on the field or is he going to be second choice this year?
How do Nemanja Nikolic and Michael de Leeuw pair up?
De Leeuw emerged as an effective poacher for the Fire after joining midway through last season. Nikolic is the Fire’s newest designated player. This could be related to the midfield question, but how the two forwards play off each other, either as two outright strikers or with de Leeuw dropping a bit deeper, will be something worth following during the preseason matches.
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Who plays right back?
The Fire went through a few different right backs last season and none particularly stood out. Rodrigo Ramos showed flashes in the attack, but the young Brazilian struggled defensively and is no longer with the team. Johan Kappelhof played that spot in the final stretch of last season, but the Dutch defender is probably more valuable at center back.
A pair of trialists at right back, Drew Beckie and Boyd Okwuonu, are in camp. Whether either one actually has a chance to start or if they are merely fighting to show if they can provide depth is unclear. Okwuonu was a second round pick of Real Salt Lake last year and didn’t have his option picked up. Beckie is a 26-year-old who was drafted by the Columbus Crew in 2013, but didn’t play a match and has been in the North American Soccer League since.
Is there a goalkeeper battle?
Last season a surprise goalkeeper battle developed that no one outside the Fire expected entering the preseason. Sean Johnson, who returned from national team camp like McCarty will in a week, was displaced by Matt Lampson, who was a trialist at the time, to start the season. Johnson did regain his starting spot midway through the season.
This year another fight for the No. 1 spot is on. Lampson is back and Jorge Bava was signed after the Fire traded Johnson. The preseason may not give a clear answer to this, but how the two fare in the preseason could be a sign of which player has a head start to win the starting position.
Is this the final roster or is there more to come?
In addition to Lampson, John Goossens and Arturo Alvarez were trialists who earned contracts last preseason. Goossens and Alvarez combined for 39 starts last season. Will more players show up this February who will have an impact on the 2017 season or is the roster more or less finished? Don’t forget the Fire traded Harry Shipp after he took the field for the Fire in the first two preseason games.