Most of the rest of the Fire’s starting lineup features mostly familiar faces, but there is the most change in the attack. Namely, the support for striker Nemanja Nikolic, who led MLS in goals with 24 in his first season in the league.
Nikolic gives the Fire a proven MLS finisher, but with David Accam gone and Michael de Leeuw out at least until summer, the question will be where will his chances come from? The fullbacks, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster, can still provide some chances and Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger are more than capable of providing a key pass from midfield, but Accam and de Leeuw shared the team lead in assists last year with eight.
Coach Veljko Paunovic has shown some fluidity in his formation and tactics, but tends to revolve around a 4-2-3-1. Nikolic is locked in as the top striker when healthy, but the three underneath him are the biggest question marks for the Fire in 2018.
Returning players (2017 MLS regular season stats)
Nemanja Nikolic (34 games played, 34 starts, 2,946 minutes, 24 goals, 4 assists)
Michael de Leeuw (30 GP, 26 GS, 2,189 minutes, 3 goals, 8 assists)
Luis Solignac (33 GP, 26 GS, 2,153 minutes, 7 goals, 4 assists)
Daniel Johnson (8 GP, 125 minutes)
Jon Bakero (No. 5 pick)
Diego Campos (second round pick)
Elliot Collier (third round pick)
Aleksandar Katai (on loan from Deportivo Alaves)
If Katai can replace Accam’s production (14 goals, 8 assists) the Fire are likely headed to the playoffs again. Don’t bet on that though simply because those are lofty numbers. Accam was one of seven players with 10 or more goals and eight or more assists last year.
Positionally Katai might be a somewhat direct replacement for Accam, but he has a very different skill set. Katai doesn’t have anywhere near Accam’s game changing speed, which opposing defenses would bend over backwards to account for, but he will probably contribute more to possession and build up play. In Saturday’s preseason finale against Tulsa, Katai frequently dropped a bit deeper to string passes together.
Beyond Katai, the big question is who will be the primary playmaker. Until another player is brought in, general manager Nelson Rodriguez has said they are looking to make an addition at that position, that’s the biggest hole on the roster. Schweinsteiger could play higher up the field this year, but that’s not his natural spot.
Bakero, a highly touted rookie, has some of the abilities to play as a playmaker underneath Nikolic, but struggled in preseason. Solignac returns after being a solid contributor as mostly a right winger in 2017, but was hurt to close preseason. The same goes for Johnson, who has talent, but injuries continue to keep him from showing it on a consistent basis.
If one or Johnson or Bakero has a breakout year, the Fire will be in good shape. If both struggle, or Johnson continues to miss time with injuries, the Fire’s attack, and likely Nikolic’s goal total, likely takes a step back from 2017.