Paunovic praises Fire's young players


Paunovic praises Fire's young players

With a preseason game completed, Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic has a bit more to say about his team.

During his weekly conference call with media on Monday, Paunovic talked about how impressed he has been with some of the team's younger players, getting Sean Johnson, Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent into camp from the national team and some early impressions from Saturday's 3-0 win against the University of South Florida.

"We are very happy so far with how the team is performing and improving and obviously we know we have to still improve our form for the next couple of weeks to prepare well for the long season," Paunovic said.

The Fire are filled with youth, with 12 players on the preseason roster who are first or second-year professionals. Veteran additions like Michael Harrington and Nick LaBrocca as well as returning veterans like Eric Gehrig and Razvan Cocis almost have dual roles on the squad to help the younger players integrate into the team.

"Our veterans are helping a lot to our youngsters, to integrate and to catch the level that they have because we believe players like Mauricio [Pineda], Collin [Fernandez], Kingsley [Bryce], [Patrick] Doody and others are the future of our team," Paunovic said. “I was surprised with the group of youngsters. This is the first time that they really are challenged to work with senior players and professional players at a professional level. I’m very, very surprised with the level and the commitment and as I said before they are proving themselves to be reliable in the future of our team.”

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One player specifically who impressed Paunovic has been Fire Academy player Mauricio Pineda. Pineda, who is 18 years old, signed his letter of intent to play collegiately for North Carolina while at the Fire's training camp in Tampa. Pineda has been training with the first team throughout the preseason and even started Saturday's match against USF. Already a youth national team prospect, Pineda is emerging as a player who could become a homegrown signing for the Fire in the near future. Paunovic said it's too early to say if Pineda could actually remain with the first team and sign at the end of the preseason, but he spoke highly of the defender.

"I would say we are very happy with what we expected that he can do on the next level, the professional level," Paunovic said. "He is proving that. He, Collin and other guys that I mentioned before, this is what gives us security that we have. Now obviously they have to work still."

A couple other players which Paunovic had an eye on against USF were Joey Calistri and Vincent Keller. Keller was the only Fire player to play the whole match, playing center back in the first half and right back in the second half. Calistri, a forward throughout his Fire Academy and Northwestern career, played right back in the first half and impressed his new coach.

“The technical staff, we had a discussion about where he can fit the best for our squad," Paunovic said of Calistri. "We believe that obviously trying him in that position in the session during the preseason, he proved that he can play there. That’s why he played there because we want to find the best position for him and obviously we have to see that in a game. That’s why we played him in that position and we were very happy with his performance.”

[MORE: Calistri looks to add depth to Fire's forward line]

Monday marks the first day of training for Johnson, Polster and Vincent. Paunovic talked about Vincent's debut performance for the U.S. national team on Friday.

“We were very happy to see him play the other day," Paunovic said. "He deserves it because I’m sure he did great at the camp so that’s how and that’s why you earn the confidence of the coach. This is how all our youngsters have to understand how to do it. What we are expecting from him is the same thing: being a humble and hard-working guy and bring the talent that he will provide us. We expect him to be a good prospect not only for us, which is obvious, but for the Olympic national team and even for the senior team.”

As for the foreign transfers who have yet to join camp, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos, Paunovic said Meira has his visa and should join the team in the next couple days. Kappelhof and Ramos are still waiting for their visas. Paunovic also clarified how the Fire discovered Ramos. The 20-year-old Brazilian didn't play much at the U-20 World Cup which Paunovic coached Serbia in, but they scouted him on video from his nine appearances with Coritiba.

“He did not play too much at the World Cup," Paunovic said. "The fact that he was a part of that great team was very important for us. When he was offered on loan to us, we started scouting him. I saw all the nine games that played for Coritiba this past season.

"What I saw and what the technical staff saw was that he is a fast player, he is good on the ball, he has that Brazilian attacking mentality and attitude so that’s what we are looking for. Obviously he is good defensively, but at the same time he attacks very well after he recovers.”

The Fire continue the preseason with a 3 p.m. CT kickoff against the Philadelphia Union on Thursday.

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.