Notes from the rewatch: The Fire debuts of Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty

Notes from the rewatch: The Fire debuts of Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty

There are a lot of things to watch during a soccer game. It's not just what happens on or near the ball, but how all 22 players are moving and interacting at all times.

It's hard to catch many of these subtleties the first time watching a match. Consider this an experiment to point out the things that may take an extra viewing to notice, starting with the Fire's season opener at Columbus.

Counterattacks without numbers for the Fire

Columbus had nearly 56 percent of the possession time on Saturday, which is no surprise. Columbus' style under coach Gregg Berhalter prioritizes possession and the Fire have been a largely counterattacking team under coach Veljko Paunovic.

David Accam is one of the most dangerous players in the league on the counter and Michael de Leeuw and Nemanja Nikolic are proven finishers. Those three should make the Fire more efficient in front of goal, but in Saturday's match they struggled to get in dangerous situations, especially in the first half. There were three 3-on-3 situations, the best of which led to a Michael de Leeuw shot on goal followed by flurry of blocked shots in the 83rd minute, but a number of other 3-on-4 or 3-on-5 situations led to nothing and didn't stretch Columbus' defense.

The lack of support from the midfield may have been a tactical move, and maybe later in the season the attacking trio will have a better understanding of each other and will be more dangerous without the support, but on Saturday it didn't quite work.

Nemanja Nikolic's forgettable debut

Speaking of Nikolic, he didn't manage a shot on target despite leading the Fire with four shots. He was caught offside four times and on a couple occasions there were misunderstandings between him and a teammate over where a pass or run should have been.

The four offsides should not be a major concern at this point in the season. Nikolic may still be getting a feel for his teammates and how to time his runs.

Nikolic had a golden opportunity in the 15th minute when de Leeuw chipped a ball over the top for him between Columbus' two centerbacks. Nikolic couldn't quite cleanly control the ball and his shot went well over the bar. He also had a shot from a tight angle go high in the 42nd minute, put a header over the bar on a Michael Harrington cross in the second half and had one of the shots in the 83rd minute frenetic sequence blocked.

The Fire will need him to be more efficient in the future, but they still earned a point on the road and Nikolic should settle in with his teammates as the season progresses.

Dax McCarty's impressive debut

One Fire debutant who didn't need time to settle in was Dax McCarty. He didn't make a ton of obviously big plays, but he was involved in many of the Fire's best chances. Without Juninho, he was the lone true defensive mid in the center and Columbus largely struggled to create through the middle of the field.

When the Fire tried to build out of the back McCarty often dropped in line with the centerbacks and made the first pass into the midfield. As previously noted, the Fire seem to be built around the counterattack and McCarty comes from a team in the New York Red Bulls that usually had the majority of possession. He was able to make simple passes to move things along, but didn't always find a teammate ready to receive the pass he wanted to make.

He did actually find someone to complete a pass to on this play, but maybe it showed a lack of familiarity like with Nikolic. McCarty completed 59 of 68 pass attempts on the day. Only Joao Meira completed more passes (66) on the Fire.

If Saturday is any indication, McCarty isn't going to be a playmaker for the Fire, but he can put more players in spots to create chances. Accam's goal was a perfect example of this. McCarty intercepted a pass and quickly gave the ball to John Goossens, who played a through ball to Accam and he did the rest.

That wasn't the only chance McCarty had the secondary pass to start. On the breakaway chance that Nikolic hit over the bar, McCarty played a quick outlet to de Leeuw, who then chipped for Nikolic. When Luis Solignac had an open chance in front to give the Fire a late lead, McCarty spun away from a defender and then played a simple pass to Michael Harrington, who found Solignac with a cross.

It will be interesting to see how McCarty and Juninho play together in the home opener, but McCarty definitely showed what he brings to the table for the Fire in Columbus.

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.