Jon Bakero

2018 Fire preview: Attackers


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)


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.

Jon Bakero, Mo Adams both took similar routes to landing with Fire


Jon Bakero, Mo Adams both took similar routes to landing with Fire

The growing investment in and importance of MLS academies have taken away much of the best domestic talent out of the league’s draft, but international talent that stands out in college can still be plentiful in the draft.

Three of the first five picks and six of the first 12 in the 2018 draft were foreign-born players. The Fire traded up to snag two of those players, Jon Bakero and Mo Adams. Both went through the academy systems in their native countries before journeying across the Atlantic to college and now in MLS. Not counting Jack Harrison, who was traded within minutes of being the top pick in the 2016 draft, the Fire hadn’t drafted a player born outside the U.S. in the first round since 2008 (Patrick Nyarko).

Bakero’s story has received more attention because the Spanish-born player is the son of a former FC Barcelona and Spanish national team player, Jose Mari Bakero. He joined Wake Forest after not having any pro prospects in Spain and turned into a Hermann Trophy winner this fall, capping off a four-year career that included an appearance in the College Cup final in 2016.

“I think I’ve been able to learn the Spanish system, the American system and I think that having three and a half years in college allowed me to fully develop as a player, as a person and I think I’m ready now to start my professional career,” Bakero said during the first week of the Fire’s preseason training.

Bakero completed his college career, but Adams left after two years at Syracuse, another ACC powerhouse program. The defensive midfielder played for the academies of Nottingham Forest and Derby County before being offered a professional contract at Blackburn. However, Adams was unable to sign the deal due to injury.

“That was kind of a point where I didn’t know what to do next,” Adams said. “There’s different agencies that sort of release players with scholarships in the States. I kind of decided to take that route. It’s something different, a new chapter that you can learn from. Two years at Syracuse and now I’m here on the professional level.”

When asked about Dom Dwyer, Orlando City’s English-born forward who played collegiately and has since played for the U.S. national team, Adams said Dwyer was someone who helped him make the decision to come stateside.

Adams noted the differences between the way the English and American games are played. He said in the U.S. the game is “more aggressive and intense” but has shortcomings in other areas.

“I think in England the speed of play is maybe quicker, but I think is less intense in that aspect,” Adams said. “The guys think quicker, but not necessarily move as quick. Here you can see the ball and you’ve got two, three guys closing you down straight away. You’re playing against guys who are a lot bigger, more physical and stuff like that. I think that it’s good that I’ve experienced both sides of things.”

As the Fire’s roster currently stands, both players should have a good opportunity to snag regular minutes. Bakero is likely in line to be the first choice attacking midfielder behind, or even potentially alongside, striker Nemanja Nikolic if the Fire don’t add any players at that spot in the next month. Adams could be a leading candidate to fill the minutes lost with Juninho’s departure after his loan expired at the end of 2017.

Fire trade up in draft, select Hermann Trophy winner Jon Bakero


Fire trade up in draft, select Hermann Trophy winner Jon Bakero

After trading down in each of the past two drafts, the roles were reversed for the Fire and general manager Nelson Rodriguez.

The Fire traded up to the No. 5 spot, sending $75,000 of General Allocation Money, $100,000 of Targeted Allocation Money, the Fire’s natural first round pick at No. 15 and goalkeeper Matt Lampson to Minnesota. With that pick the Fire took Jon Bakero, an attacking player who won the MAC Hermann Trophy, college’s soccer version of the Heisman Trophy, this fall.

Bakero comes in with a heck of a resume and a background. The Wake Forest forward scored 37 goals and had 26 assists in four years. As a senior he had 16 goals and 14 assists in 23 games.

"Jon Bakero was, for us, the player who fit both some needs that we had in our proposed style of play best in the draft," Rodriguez said after the draft. "Our character assessment of him came back with a very, very high score. We also thought that his personality, competitiveness, his desire and drive to improve would fit well in our environment. When he was still there at five, we saw an opening to try to take advantage of that. We know that there were some teams between five and 15 that had targeted Jon as well and we felt we needed to be bold in making that move.

On top of his college accomplishments, Bakero is the son of Jose Mari Bakero, who played for Barcelona for a decade and played in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. The Spanish-born player will count as an international on the Fire’s roster, but offseason moves have cleared out international slots.

Bakero is noted for his technical ability on the ball and his ability to create chances for himself and his teammates. He played as a striker in college, but in coach Veljko Paunovic’s system he could be used as the attacker underneath Nemanja Nikolic, a role that Michael de Leeuw played in 2017 before getting hurt. With de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic expected to miss at least a few months of the 2018 season, Bakero should have a chance to start right away based on the current roster.

“I think Jon has some versatility to his game," Rodriguez said. "We feel he can play beneath Nemanja, alongside Nemanja, instead of Nemanja. He doesn’t have the pace to play as an out and out winger, but he’s a very mobile player. So even if he starts centrally he can get out wide, get isolated against defenders. He has a very, very high soccer IQ and a very good ability to play one-touch.

Bakero was named MVP of the combine leading into the draft. Last year the Fire took Daniel Johnson in the first round after Johnson caught some eyes by standing out at the combine.

Not longer after dealing for Bakero, the Fire traded up to the No. 10 spot. Real Salt Lake gave the Fire the pick in exchange for $85,000 of GAM. The Fire then took Syracuse midfielder Mo Adams.

Adams is a Generation Adidas player, meaning he left college early (after two years) and won't count against the salary cap as a rookie. Adams is from England and plays a defensive midfield role. He could play as a backup to Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty as a rookie.

"With Mo Adams we had inquired about acquiring Real Salt Lake’s selection, 10th overall, a few days ago when we were in Florida," Rodriguez said. "At that moment in time we came back to them, increased our offer and were pleased to be able to select Mo as well.”

In the second round, the Fire added Clemson attacking midfielder Diego Campos with the 38th pick. Campos had 10 goals and nine assists this fall as a senior. Campos was born in Costa Rica.