Aleksandar Katai

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.

2018 Fire preview: Attackers

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USA TODAY

2018 Fire preview: Attackers

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)

Newcomers

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.

Fire's preseason finale shows potential season-opening starting lineup

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USA TODAY

Fire's preseason finale shows potential season-opening starting lineup

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.