Christian Dean

2018 Fire preview: Defenders and goalkeepers

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USA TODAY

2018 Fire preview: Defenders and goalkeepers

For all the deserved focus on the additions of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic, the Fire’s defense also took a solid step forward in 2017.

The Fire went from allowing 58 goals in each of the previous two seasons, which was tied with Orlando (an expansion team for the first of those two years) for the most goals allowed in the league over that span, to surrendering 47 in 2017. The 47 goals allowed tied for sixth fewest in the league.

The additions of McCarty and Schweinsteiger (and the now departed Juninho) helped to protect the defense from the onslaught of pressure it faced in 2016, but the defenders themselves also took steps forward. At left back Brandon Vincent turned into a solid starter after struggling in his rookie season. When options at right back looked bleak, Matt Polster turned into a revelation at the position and has earned national team call-ups. Neither Vincent nor Polster are without weaknesses, but added steady play to positions that had been major weaknesses.

The Fire also return center back Johan Kappelhof, easily the team’s best defender the past two seasons and an All-Star in 2017.

Returning players (2017 MLS regular season stats)

Johan Kappelhof (33 games played, 33 starts, 2,881 minutes, 4 assists)

Brandon Vincent (27 GP, 26 GS, 2,341 minutes, 2 goals, 5 assists)

Matt Polster (22 GP, 21 GS, 1,769 minutes, 1 goal, 7 assists)

Jonathan Campbell (24 GP, 8 GS, 1,009 minutes)

Christian Dean (3 GP, 2 GS, 220 minutes)

Jorge Corrales (signed with Fire on Sept. 14 but remained with Tulsa)

Newcomers

Rafael Ramos (trade with Orlando)

Grant Lillard (homegrown signing)

The three returning starters appear set to be staples again in 2018. The other center back spot next to Kappelhof is up in the air, but injuries appear to have given Christian Dean the first crack at it. Dean and fellow lefty Lillard appeared to be the favorites for the spot until Lillard suffered a knee injury in preseason that has kept Lillard out for a couple weeks. Campbell, who led the Fire in minutes as a rookie in 2016 and then lost his starting job to the now departed Joao Meira last year, is out for at least the first month of the season due to a facial fracture. Lillard is expected to be back soon, but Dean will in all likelihood start the opener against Sporting Kansas City.

Lillard could be an upgraded depth option, but may not be an impact rookie. Ramos gives the Fire improved depth at fullback and could be valuable given Polster’s past of knee injury flare ups.

Goalkeepers

The players behind the defenders will have a more different look than the defenders. Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland return, but don’t bring much MLS experience to the table. Sanchez made two starts with the Fire last season as an in-season replacement once it was known Jorge Bava would miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury. Matt Lampson is also gone and is now starting for Minnesota.

The Fire still don’t have the typical three goalkeepers under contract, but Patrick McLain, the No. 3 in 2016, has been trialing with the team and played in the second half of Saturday’s preseason finale at Toyota Park.

As it stands, it’s a younger, less experienced group than what the Fire had in previous years with Sean Johnson and then Lampson and Bava in net, but having a more proven defense will help. Sanchez is likely the starter, but he has had an elbow injury that kept him out of action Saturday and has limited him in training. Cleveland, a second-round pick a year ago who hasn't appeared in an MLS match, could start the opener.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

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USA TODAY

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.

Another injury blow for Christian Dean will likely cost him the season

Another injury blow for Christian Dean will likely cost him the season

Some guys just can't seem to stay healthy.

The Fire announced that Christian Dean is expected to be out two to three months with a fifth metatarsal fracture in his left foot. Dean exited Saturday's loss to Minnesota at halftime with the injury and was seen on crutches after the match.

This is the third time in the past two seasons Dean will be out significant time due to a related injury. Dean suffered the same injury in training just before the start of the 2016 season when he was with Vancouver and he missed the whole season. This season he started three of the Whitecaps' first five matches before suffering what the Whitecaps described as a "stress reaction" in training on April 25.

This time around, the Fire are calling it a fracture again. Dean is scheduled to have surgery on Sept. 1 at Midwest Orthopaedic at Rush. With less than two months left in the regular season, Dean is likely to miss the rest of the season even with a deep playoff run from the Fire.

The Fire traded for Dean on Aug. 9 to add defensive depth, which he provided just in time for a rash of injuries to the Fire back line. Dean's first game in uniform, Aug. 16 at Montreal, saw center back Joao Meira go down with a calf injury five minutes into the game. Dean was the only option off the bench in that position. He started the next two games, home losses to Toronto and Minnesota.

Dean's injury comes at a time when injuries are still a major problem for the Fire. Meira hasn't returned since leaving that game at Montreal, left back Brandon Vincent has missed the last seven games with a quad injury and right back Matt Polster has been out for three straight games with a knee injury. Of the three, Polster has appeared to be the closest to returning after being nearly a full participant in training last week.

This year, the Fire have also seen Jorge Bava go down for the year with elbow surgery and John Goossens has been out since the first game due to an ankle injury. In addition, rookie midfielder and first-round pick Daniel Johnson suffered an MCL sprain in early August and has been out since.