While most of MLS opens play this weekend, a schedule quirk gives the Chicago Fire an extra week to prepare for the March 10 season opener. Despite the season being so close both general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic are saying the roster is “incomplete.”
Sporting Kansas City comes to Toyota Park in 11 days, yet the words from the front office don’t exude confidence.
“We are missing some pieces on and off the field, but we are working towards that,” Paunovic said.
Rodriguez has previously mentioned the importance of getting a playmaker type, a No. 10 in soccer parlance, to boost the attack. The Fire lacked in that area in 2017 when teams bunkered in defensively and made the Fire attack from wide areas. Aleksandar Katai arrived from a club in Spain’s La Liga and can help in that area, but is more of a direct replacement for the departed David Accam.
“We’re still looking for a No. 10 and suggestions are welcome,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “Look, we’ve run through a long pipeline of players that we looked at and considered, and for whatever reasons those didn’t come through. So we rebuild our pipeline and keep looking, internally and externally.”
Rodriguez said, as he has previously this offseason, that they still want the team to “improve across all the lines” and are looking both within the league and outside of MLS for players.
“I can’t say that anything is imminent, but we’ll keep working until we get the group assembled that we think will be the best one to give us a chance at a championship,” Rodriguez said.
Beyond a playmaker, an extra goalkeeper remains a position of need simply based on numbers. The Fire want three under contract and have only two, Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland. Patrick McLain, who was the Fire’s No. 3 in 2016, was at training on Tuesday as a trialist. League veteran Alan Gordon is also trialing with the team and could be a backup to Nemanja Nikolic, last year’s MLS goal-scoring leader.
The defense could be mostly set, although injuries have affected that group in the preseason. Jonathan Campbell is out for six weeks after suffering a facial fracture against Nashville SC on Feb. 21, rookie Grant Lillard has been out with a left knee injury and Johan Kappelhof was limited in training on Tuesday dealing with a minor injury.
The combination of injuries and a front office saying the roster is incomplete 11 days away from the season has created anxiety within the fanbase, something Rodriguez is well aware of.
“It’s frustrating for fans that we haven’t had as many acquisitions as other teams, but I’m pleased that we remain disciplined in our process and our evaluation and we’re willing to walk away from some talent because we don’t think the values match or we’re willing to stick to our valuations of what players should cost,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not to be evasive of the timing, but it is to say when all those factors are right we’ll add players.”
The tone from the players was optimistic due to key players like Nikolic, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Kappelhof being back.
“It’s been I think fairly similar to last offseason in that there’s a lot of turnover, maybe more so this offseason, but I think the core has remained the same and that’s always positive,” McCarty said. “The key difference for me from last year to this year is the core group of leadership is the same and is pushing everyone to try to be better and to try to hold each other a little bit more accountable.”
Schweinsteiger again focused on the Fire’s game style, a phrase he used frequently in 2017.
“We had very many games where we played 45 minutes or 60 minutes on a high level,” he said. “My wish for this season is that we can play the games in 90 minutes on a high level (and) of course to qualify for the playoffs. That’s the most important for me first of all and then to be more competitive than maybe we were last year in the big matches against big teams.”