While most MLS teams were beginning the 2018 season on Saturday, the Fire finished off the preseason with a game against USL affiliate Tulsa which provided a sneak peek at what the 2018 Fire will look like.
Preseason results are meaningless, especially when against a minor league team, but the starting lineup that coach Veljko Paunovic sent out in front of a crowd of hardcore fans at Toyota Park could be the same 11 that start against Sporting Kansas City in next week’s season opener.
There were few surprises in the back, although injuries have limited the options. Stefan Cleveland got the start in goal while Richard Sanchez, the presumed starter, is dealing with a hand injury. The back four was Brandon Vincent, Christian Dean, Johan Kappelhof and Matt Polster. Dean was in the only spot that wasn’t certain going into camp, but he will get the job by default in Week 1 due to injuries to Jonathan Campbell, who still had bruising around his right eye after suffering a facial fracture earlier in the preseason, and Grant Lillard, who has a knee injury and did not play Saturday.
The midfield is where things get interesting. Luis Solignac and Daniel Johnson were both out of action, which left few attacking options to support striker Nemanja Nikolic. Newly acquired Tony Tchani played next to Dax McCarty in the deep central midfield roles while Bastian Schweinsteiger played higher up the field with rookie Jon Bakero and offseason addition Aleksandar Katai playing in wide attacking roles.
Tchani was traded to the Fire on Wednesday and joined the team Thursday. His addition provides more flexibility in the Fire’s midfield and allows Schweinsteiger to play in a more advanced role while not entirely stripping the team’s central midfield depth (rookie Mo Adams can still come off the bench in this lineup).
Schweinsteiger has played in a more attacking role with the Fire, mostly early in his stint with the team last year, but that’s not his usual position. However, a lack of playmaking options elsewhere on the roster may necessitate this move.
“Basti obviously he knows the game perfectly,” Paunovic said after the game. “He knows where to find the rights spots and gaps in between the lines to organize, to be the open man and then to bring the ball to the opponent’s end. That’s the free role that he almost always played for us. Sometimes more specific against some opponents. We will look always to take advantage of all the qualities he brings on the field. As I said, playing as a No. 10, No. 8 in some moments or even as a six. So for sure we will rotate these roles.”
So while general manager Nelson Rodriguez continues to search for a No. 10, Schweinsteiger may be the team’s playmaker in the meantime.
Bakero struggled to assert himself for much of the preseason, but showed flashes of the technical ability that made him the Hermann Trophy award winner this past college season. Him and Katai swapped on the wings frequently and Katai dropped deeper into the midfield than David Accam, the player he is most directly replacing. Katai doesn’t have top line speed, but will be more fluid in the Fire’s attack. He also took corner kicks from the right side and could be a much-needed option to take set pieces after the Fire failed to score from a dead ball situation last year.
The returns of Solignac and Johnson could change things and possibly push Bakero to the bench, but they may not be ready to play starting minutes by Saturday.
“They’re kind of in the last phase of the recovery so we expect them, at least one of them to be back,” Paunovic said. “But we still cannot say. We have to see in the next couple days how they improve and if they can start on Tuesday with the rest of the group.”
Oh, by the way, the Fire won 2-1 with second-half goals from Nikolic and rookie Elliot Collier after falling behind on a passing mistake by Cleveland in goal gave Tulsa a 1-0 lead in the first half.