Five things to watch during the Fire's preseason

Five things to watch during the Fire's preseason

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.

[MORE FIRE: Soldier Field to host 2017 MLS All-Star Game]

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.

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.