The past few months have brought much change to the Fire, and Monday was the first chance to see what the new pieces look like together.
The Fire opened the preseason with a training session open to the media on Monday at the PrivateBank Fire Pitch in Chicago, and all the new faces gave the team a very different feel.
A number of players spoke about how organized first-year coach Veljko Paunovic’s first training session went. Harry Shipp, who was the longest-tenured Fire player at practice with Sean Johnson training with the U.S. National Team, talked about the attention to detail.
“We came in in the morning and I think we had every minute of the session planned out on a white board and a Powerpoint before, so that’s something already a bit of a change from last year,” Shipp said. “I think as players it helps when you’re getting your mindset in training of what you’re going to be doing as the day goes on.”
The changes don’t stop there. Since Frank Yallop was fired in September, changes have come in large number for the Fire and across many different parts of the club.
Nelson Rodriguez was brought on as general manager and hired Paunovic in November. In the offseason, the Fire retained just 11 players from last season’s last-place squad. On top of that, technical director Brian Bliss and academy director Larry Sunderland left for other MLS jobs. The Fire announced Paunovic’s new coaching staff on Sunday, and only assistant coach Logan Pause was a familiar name to the club. Even the training staff was new.
To sum it up: This isn’t your 2015 Chicago Fire.
That doesn’t mean the Fire will turn it around from the last-place finish and suddenly be MLS Cup contenders when the season starts on March 6. In fact, it’s probably a safe bet to say most national prognosticators still won’t pick the Fire to make the playoffs.
“It’s a process,” Paunovic said. “I can’t give you a timeline. We want to be ready from the start, but we want to be ready to play with heart and to play with character and always wanting to win. If we can prove that on the field, I know that the fans will be very happy with that. I’m sure on March 6 we will be ready to do that.”
As for the training session itself, it began with station-to-station skill drills focused on dribbling, passing and positioning. Paunovic even interrupted one passing drill when the players were doing basic two-touch passes. He joined in with a one-touch backheel to encourage more flair from his players.
“Pauno is sharp,” free-agent signing Michael Harrington said. “He’s got a plan. He’s a very personable guy. I think we’re going to have fun and we’re going to be organized. Everything I’ve seen so far has been first class. Today was a good session, just to get the feet under you and get out here and get playing.”
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Other notes and quotes from Monday’s training:
— Eric Gehrig was limited in training but participated in some drills. He is still working his way back from a stress fracture in his foot and said he expects to be ready to go right around the season opener. Kennedy Igboananike was not at training.
— The Fire have brought in three trialists. Goalkeeper Zach Bennett, who won the team’s open tryout, just finished his career at Michigan State as a four-year starter. Goalkeeper Matt Lampson, 26, was a homegrown player with the Columbus Crew and has 16 MLS appearances in his career. German central defender Benedikt Krug is a 6-foot-4 20-year-old who has played in the lower leagues in Germany. In addition, Saint Louis FC players James Musa, a defender, and Parker Maher, a midfielder, are training with the Fire.
— Paunovic spoke of the importance of the team being able to play different styles but said the team’s starting base will be a 1-4-2-3-1 formation.
“We want to start with 1-4-2-3-1, and this is how we are going to work,” Paunovic said. “In order to be adaptable and to surprise we have to work on alternative systems, too. But it’s not about the system. It’s about the players and the coaching. This is what we are going to teach and learn, continuous learning and teaching. Improve every aspect of the game on the group side, but also on the individual, which is also important.”
— Rodriguez updated the status of any pending moves by saying things are about the same as they were a week ago.
“We had always thought that decisions would coincide with the close of the primary window throughout most of Europe, which is the end of this month,” Rodriguez said. “Knowing that we are still in the game, we actually see as a positive indicator.”
— Rodriguez also explained the story of new signing Joao Meira’s failed drug test in Portugal in 2012. He said the team talked to the Portuguese FA’s disciplinary committee, who rendered the decision, as well as Meira.
“He took an over the counter supplement that had an ingredient that was on the banned list,” Rodriguez said. “It was a U.S.-based supplement and on the translation to Portuguese it was not translated correctly. He even asked his team doctors if he could take that medicine and was given the OK to do so. It’s an unfortunate mistake, one that he’s repentant about but one that we fully investigated. We’re very comfortable with Joao’s character, and he understands the drug testing that will take part as part of Major League Soccer.”
— Since Bliss and Sunderland have left the club, those positions have not been filled. Rodriguez explained the status of those positions.
“In both instances, I’m still taking time to determine whether we want to just succeed them in the same roles or whether there’s an opportunity to evolve our thinking as to how the whole structure should be,” Rodriguez said. “Those are important positions, treatment of the academy is important, but I believe in trying to get things right and not get things done fast. I also have to recognize the primary focus has been the first team. For as good as our academy has been and it has a deserved good reputation, nothing matters if the first team isn’t successful and we need to make sure the first team wins.”