Daniel Johnson

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.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Drew Conner, Daniel Johnson show potential in substitute roles

Drew Conner, Daniel Johnson show potential in substitute roles

Veljko Paunovic didn't use all three of his subs in the Chicago Fire's 1-0 win against Columbus on Saturday, but the two that he did both had some noteworthy plays.

Rookie Daniel Johnson nearly scored the game's second goal after chipping over goalkeeper Zack Steffen, but saw his shot cleared off the line by Nicolai Naess.

Meanwhile, Drew Conner had a few of his own highlights after entering in the 55th minute, including a long run that led to Bastian Schweinsteiger's free kick that the German nearly scored on. He also weaved through the Columbus defense in the box later on, but was unable to connect with a teammate on a centering ball.

"I've always prided myself on being versatile, but I think when I got the ball those two times I just saw a lot of space ahead of me and guys running on the wing so I just took a couple big touches and baited a few guys," Conner said. "I don't consider it my strong suit, but the opportunity was there to dribble so I just did it."

Conner, a homegrown player, didn't play in his first season with the Fire other than some appearances on loan in the USL. Saturday was his third appearance of 2017. With Brazilian midfielder Juninho serving a red card suspension, Conner was higher up the pecking order in central midfield.

After playing a combined 12 minutes in his first two matches, Conner got a more extended run with a 35 minute outing against the Crew.

"It was nice to get in and get some time," Conner said. "My thoughts just going on the field were just trying to break stuff up defensively as much as I could and when I get it just move the ball and help the team build a rhythm."

As for Johnson, the winger has been involved in flashy plays near the box in both of his first two MLS appearances after not playing in the Fire’s first three matches. Midfielder Dax McCarty said Johnson has changed the game both times he has played.

With John Goossens out with a long-term injury and Matt Polster still recovering from a knee injury suffered in preseason, there has been more minutes available to the Fire’s young midfielders.

"Very important to know that you can rely on the young players in a tough game like this when they come off the bench and help the team like they did," Paunovic said after the match. "I think both of them were very close to even influence more the game and change the game. I think Conner was close, that foul on him.

"It's very important to know that young players are growing, getting more mature and getting experience in games like this."