Offseason changes have brought confidence within Fire

Offseason changes have brought confidence within Fire

As has been the case in the last few years, there has been a lot of change to the Chicago Fire's roster this offseason.

However, unlike the last few years the reasons for optimism to go with those changes seem more justified. In year two of coach Veljko Paunovic's tenure, the Fire figure to at least compete for a playoff spot.

"I think we improved for sure," Paunovic said. "I think where we improved is in leadership. Obviously our players that we brought this year, they have strong careers behind them and careers that they were successful and they proved their leadership role on their teams. That's very important. I think when you have that then you bring other pieces. Now we have to make them play as a team, which I think we are doing."

Preseason results typically don't mean much, but it is possible to learn things about a team based on how it played in those matches. For example, Juninho and Dax McCarty, two of the most notable additions in the offseason, seemed to have an easy time playing with each other in central midfield. Nemanja Nikolic and Michael de Leeuw look like they should be more efficient in finishing chances than the Fire were last year.

Beyond player changes, Paunovic said the team has shifted formations, although somewhat subtly. As opposed to the 4-2-3-1 system the team used most games last season, Paunovic mentioned changing to a 4-4-2 for this season. For the most part, the difference between the two formations is how the two strikers interact with each other. As opposed to having Nikolic play as the lone striker with an attacking midfielder playing somewhat underneath him, de Leeuw will play as a second striker alongside him.

"I think that me and Michael are the same type of players," Nikolic said. "The both of us run a lot looking for the free spaces behind opponents and it gives us opportunities in the attack. For defenders I think this is the most difficult. They have players everywhere who also help in the team defensively and in offense."

Nikolic said playing with de Leeuw in a 4-4-2 is beneficial to both players.

"I play with somebody else in front and it gives us more opportunities and more players are close to the box and close to the goal to score," Nikolic said of the 4-4-2.

[RELATED: Fire putting finishing touches on roster as season nears]

Nikolic, added this offseason, and de Leeuw, who joined in the middle of last season, give the Fire's attack a different dynamic to go along with speedster David Accam. Accam used to be the main threat for opposing teams to focus on, but that could change this season.

"I think this team in the past, a lot of the gameplanning has been around David Accam," McCarty said. "Rightfully so with his speed, it's a gamechanger. This team has kind of just been known as a team that wants to counterattack with David and hope that they score goals and see what happens. I think this year adding myself, Juninho, Nemanja Nikolic, Michael de Leeuw with another season under his belt, getting a new goalkeeper (Jorge Bava) that's very good with his feet and has a lot of experience. I think this team has a lot of weapons and we're going to be a pretty dangerous team."

The new pieces encourage optimism, but also likely mean the Fire will need some time to properly jell. Both Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez preached patience, a common theme from those two, while also emphasizing the importance of a strong start to 2017.

Every team will have players and coaches say they are confident just before the start of a new season and the Fire are no different.

"Last year we came out of preseason and the mood was excitement and hope," Rodriguez said. "A year of experience has taught me preseason really means nothing in terms of results. The mood this year is decidedly different. I think the mood this year is one of confidence."

Paunovic delivered the most confidence, again using that P word, playoffs, that has eluded the Fire the past four seasons.

"What I think is that we are in a very good spot and I am very confident that we can achieve the playoffs this year."

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.