Fire

What to watch for in the rest of the Fire's 2016 season

What to watch for in the rest of the Fire's 2016 season

The standings in Major League Soccer paint a clear picture for the Chicago Fire, and it’s not a pretty one.

The Fire sit all alone in last place in the league and time is running out to make the playoffs. The Fire have to make up a nine-point deficit with just six games remaining and pass four teams in the Eastern Conference along the way. There are four road games left on the Fire’s schedule and the team has won once away from Toyota Park all season so any furious closing rally seems unlikely.

Coach Veljko Paunovic will surely continue to talk about wanting his team to play hard in every game and playing to win each match as it comes. As for the players, they should remain motivated because most of them aren’t guaranteed for 2017.

The club confirmed that currently six players have guaranteed contracts for 2017: David Accam, Michael Harrington, Johan Kappelhof, John Goossens, Michael de Leeuw and David Arshakyan. Every other player has a 2017 club option, although some of those could become guaranteed before the end of the season by hitting triggers in their contracts.

So with that in mind, here’s a few things Fire fans can look for in the rest of 2016:

Can David Arshakyan settle in and provide the Fire a different dynamic up top?

Arshakyan made his first start with the Fire in Friday’s draw with D.C. He showed some glimpses of good touch and hold up play, but wasn’t a major factor. He is 22 and adjusting to a new league, country and club so patience is warranted.

He is under contract for 2017 so the rest of this season can provide him the settling in period so theoretically he can hit the ground running next season. If he can prove to be a threat in the air and give the Fire another reliable option up top, that could change how general manager Nelson Rodriguez approaches the forward position in the offseason.

[SHOP: Get a Fire home jersey right here]

Will more young players see more playing time?

The Fire’s USL affiliate, Saint Louis FC, has one game left in its season and is already eliminated from playoff contention. Patrick Doody, Collin Fernandez and Alex Morrell have been on loan with the club, but Morrell is recovering from a hamstring injury. None of those three has made a start with the Fire, but all three have had to overcome injuries throughout the season. Doody hasn’t appeared for the Fire all season after making seven appearances, six of which were starts, last season. Fernandez has made two substitute appearances with the Fire this season totaling eight minutes. Morrell has come off the bench four times for the Fire, but hasn’t appeared since June. Drew Conner began the season on loan in St. Louis, but hasn’t seen any action with the Fire since he was recalled in June.

Rodriguez and Paunovic have both said that the Fire will continue to put out the strongest lineup the rest of the way, but that could be tested if the team is officially eliminated from playoff contention.

“We don’t play guys because they’re young,” Rodriguez said on Aug. 30. “We don’t play guys because they have an option. We play guys that we think give us the best chance to win.”

Will on-loan players Khaly Thiam and Rodrigo Ramos make a positive impression?

There are two foreign players on loan with the Fire in Thiam and Ramos. Both have recently run into tough times with the club.

Ramos seemed like a revelation as a 21-year-old Brazilian right back earlier in the season, but hasn’t played in the past eight league matches and was not in the list of available substitutes for five of those matches. He has not played since being subbed off at halftime of the U.S. Open Cup semifinal at New England on Aug. 9, when he committed a foul in the box for a penalty kick.

Paunovic hasn’t said what changed, but clearly something has. Ramos played in 18 of the club’s first 20 matches and hasn’t played in any of the last eight. Unless something changes in the final six matches, it doesn’t look good for Ramos to be retained on a permanent basis.

As for Thiam, he had become a regular contributor in midfield since joining the Fire on loan in May. A red card in D.C. on Aug. 27 may have changed that. After serving the suspension for the red card, Thiam sat out the match against Toronto on Sept. 10 and came off the bench last Friday. It’s not yet long enough to know for sure if Thiam has damaged his status with the team, but he hasn’t started since the red card. If Thiam can play well down the stretch, it could make a case for the Fire to keep him for 2017. If not, he is likely headed back to Hungary.

[MORE FIRE: Fire notes: Injuries, Polster honored, Ramos' playing time]

Will the team finish with some positive momentum?

The Fire finished with 30 points and were dead last in MLS last season. Right now the Fire have 27 points and are dead last in MLS. The Fire already snapped the road winless streak this season. Improving upon last year’s point total and league position would be notable just to show some form of progress, even if it is only marginal. The roster is just over a year younger than it was at the close of the 2015 season (average age of 26.8 then vs. 25.5 now). If the Fire can improve on last year in a season when the club turned over the entire technical staff and got younger, that would be something positive the club can claim heading into 2017.

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.