Fire

New faces all over as Fire open training camp

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New faces all over as Fire open training camp

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.”

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.

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof was involved in a car accident on his way to practice Thursday morning that sent him to the hospital with minor injuries.

According to authorities and the Secretary of State’s Office, a box truck crashed into the Dutch player’s 2013 Volkswagen and another vehicle in the 5900 block of South Harlem. Kappelhof’s vehicle rolled over and two people fled from the scene.

The driver ran on foot and the passenger moved into the driver’s seat before driving the truck onto the Stevenson Expressway after the crash, officials said. After the damaged vehicle broke down, police say the same passenger tried to jump into the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Both were taken into custody.

Team officials said Kappelhof was treated and released from the hospital without indicators of a concussion. The 27-year-old was reportedly seen at Toyota Park after the crash and did not have any serious injuries. The other driver who was hit by the box truck was also treated, police said.

This season in league play with the Fire, Kappelhof has three assists in 16 games. The international product was a 2017 MLS All-Star and the Defensive Player of the Year for the Fire last season. He was signed in 2016 and has made one MLS Cup Playoffs appearance.