Luis Solignac

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.

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

In the Fire’s resurgent 2017 season, the team earned its playoff berth on the back of a lot of dominant wins against bad or mediocre teams mixed in with some impressive wins against good teams from the Western Conference.

But one thing is missing: wins against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The field of six teams is all but set, with Columbus clinching on Saturday to join the Fire, Toronto, Atlanta and Saturday’s opponent, New York City FC. The New York Red Bulls are limping into the playoffs, but still have a firm grasp on the final playoff spot.

After Saturday’s 1-1 draw against NYCFC, the Fire’s record against those five teams is now 2-6-3. Each of the five teams has at least one win against the Fire and top seed Toronto has two.

Those two wins have questionable value as well. The Fire beat Columbus came in April. The Crew made changes this summer and are currently on an eight-game unbeaten streak. The Fire also beat Atlanta when its two best players, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, came off the bench.

So with the MLS playoffs just under a month away, Saturday’s game was a chance to not only make up ground in the standings, but to prove the Fire can beat good teams in the East. The Fire hold an impressive 5-1-1 record against the eight teams jockeying for playoff spots in the Western Conference, but those teams aren’t in the Fire’s immediate playoff future.

“Obviously we don’t feel good about the tie,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have two games more. We will build up the mood that will prepare the team now. We will first recover and we’ll look towards winning all six points. Obviously we know that’s easy and simple to say, but it’s not easy to do, but we are confident in our team.”

Paunovic opened his press conference on a somber note by speaking about Michael de Leeuw’s injury. The Dutch forward suffered a knee injury, was helped off the field by two trainers and was subbed off in the 30th minute. Paunovic said it “doesn’t look good,” but the team is awaiting MRI results to see the extent of the damage. If it is significant enough to keep him out of the playoffs, that would be a blow to the team.

The Fire remain in fourth place after Saturday’s games. Atlanta, which is in third-place with one more point and one more game remaining than the Fire, drew at New England. Columbus won to move within two points of the Fire for the final hosting spot in the first round, but the Crew’s final two games are on the road so the Fire appear likely to finish fourth.

[RELATED: See the latest standings and scenarios in the playoff tracker]

Despite having clinched, no one on the team was thinking about feeling relaxed with that accomplishment out of the way.

“It took a little bit of pressure off, but we’re still focusing on getting a top spot in the conference,” midfielder Djordje Mihailovic said. “Maybe second place, third place. That’s what we’re going for. There’s no letting off any bit.”

The Fire next play on Oct. 15 after MLS takes a break for international matches. Philadelphia comes to Toyota Park for the final regular season home match and the following Sunday the Fire play at Houston.

“I think we got to get back onto the game we did in San Jose,” forward Luis Solignac said of the team's 4-1 win on the road three days before. “It was a perfect example to build on. Be sharp with a killer instinct in the final third, take the chances and I think that’s our focus. Keep organized and keep our minds in the right way that it’s win these two games to get in the best shape to the playoffs.”