Trip to Atlanta starts key four-game stretch for Fire

Trip to Atlanta starts key four-game stretch for Fire

Throughout the preseason there was an emphasis from players and coaches that getting off to a good start to the season was essential for the Chicago Fire.

Through two matches, so far, so good. The Fire picked up a draw at Columbus and a win in the home opener against Real Salt Lake.

The next four matches, a trip to Atlanta followed by three straight at Toyota Park, represent an opportunity to extend and cement that good start. Just ask coach Veljko Paunovic.

"Our first goals were in the first couple of games to have a good start," Paunovic said after the RSL match. "We achieved that and we have to now move forward in the next four games. We believe we have a great opportunity to make the difference and set up the season for us."

The upcoming match at Atlanta won't be easy. The expansion team just put six goals past Minnesota in Minnesota's first home match in MLS and features exciting, fast, young attacking talent.

After that though, the Fire host three Eastern Conference teams which are all without a win in the young season. First up from that group is Montreal, which made the playoffs last year but lost at San Jose and drew Seattle at home in the its first two matches of 2017. Next up is another match with Columbus followed by a date with New England, which missed the playoffs last year.

Getting several points from that stretch is both attainable and important because the Fire will then embark on a three-game road trip and face seven straight playoff teams from 2016, including both MLS Cup finalists and the top three teams in last year's Supporters Shield standings.

"Obviously for us it was very important for us to start well, but we have to know that we haven't done anything yet," Paunovic said after training on Wednesday. "Four points, one win, still a long way to go. The next game is going to be a very important game. It's a test actually for us to see if we can keep this positive progression that we have and positive start."

In order to extend the positive start, the Fire will have to improve in certain areas. Much of the narrative coming from the players after the win against RSL was that the Fire didn't play very well, but still won by two goals. After scoring two goals in the first 15 minutes, the Fire struggled to control the ball and, as a result, absorbed a lot of pressure from RSL.

"The last game wasn't that great, but still the team is solid right now," forward Michael de Leeuw said. "Even if we don't play very well we still create a couple chances and we got the quality to score the goal. Defensively we're not giving chances away. At this point we're standing good. Everyone is confident and we're happy to play Saturday again and go on with the road we're on."

Possession was something the Fire struggled in last season as well. The Fire were last in the league in terms of share of possession.

In the opener at Columbus had just over 45 percent of the possession. Last weekend the number was just under 42 percent. Those numbers are similar to last season when the Fire averaged 43.5 percent of the possession. The difference is that the defense has held up so far.

"I think that's something we kind of lacked last year," midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. "Even though we were up 2-0, I think we gave up some silly goals last year. I think this year I think things are turning around, we're not doing that. Obviously that helps."

The Fire visit Atlanta at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

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.