Nelson Rodriguez

Fire 'missing pieces on and off the field' with season less than two weeks away

Fire 'missing pieces on and off the field' with season less than two weeks away

While most of MLS opens play this weekend, a schedule quirk gives the Chicago Fire an extra week to prepare for the March 10 season opener. Despite the season being so close both general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic are saying the roster is “incomplete.”

Sporting Kansas City comes to Toyota Park in 11 days, yet the words from the front office don’t exude confidence.

“We are missing some pieces on and off the field, but we are working towards that,” Paunovic said.

Rodriguez has previously mentioned the importance of getting a playmaker type, a No. 10 in soccer parlance, to boost the attack. The Fire lacked in that area in 2017 when teams bunkered in defensively and made the Fire attack from wide areas. Aleksandar Katai arrived from a club in Spain’s La Liga and can help in that area, but is more of a direct replacement for the departed David Accam.

“We’re still looking for a No. 10 and suggestions are welcome,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “Look, we’ve run through a long pipeline of players that we looked at and considered, and for whatever reasons those didn’t come through. So we rebuild our pipeline and keep looking, internally and externally.”

Rodriguez said, as he has previously this offseason, that they still want the team to “improve across all the lines” and are looking both within the league and outside of MLS for players.

“I can’t say that anything is imminent, but we’ll keep working until we get the group assembled that we think will be the best one to give us a chance at a championship,” Rodriguez said.

Beyond a playmaker, an extra goalkeeper remains a position of need simply based on numbers. The Fire want three under contract and have only two, Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland. Patrick McLain, who was the Fire’s No. 3 in 2016, was at training on Tuesday as a trialist. League veteran Alan Gordon is also trialing with the team and could be a backup to Nemanja Nikolic, last year’s MLS goal-scoring leader.

The defense could be mostly set, although injuries have affected that group in the preseason. Jonathan Campbell is out for six weeks after suffering a facial fracture against Nashville SC on Feb. 21, rookie Grant Lillard has been out with a left knee injury and Johan Kappelhof was limited in training on Tuesday dealing with a minor injury.

The combination of injuries and a front office saying the roster is incomplete 11 days away from the season has created anxiety within the fanbase, something Rodriguez is well aware of.

“It’s frustrating for fans that we haven’t had as many acquisitions as other teams, but I’m pleased that we remain disciplined in our process and our evaluation and we’re willing to walk away from some talent because we don’t think the values match or we’re willing to stick to our valuations of what players should cost,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not to be evasive of the timing, but it is to say when all those factors are right we’ll add players.”

The tone from the players was optimistic due to key players like Nikolic, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Kappelhof being back.

“It’s been I think fairly similar to last offseason in that there’s a lot of turnover, maybe more so this offseason, but I think the core has remained the same and that’s always positive,” McCarty said. “The key difference for me from last year to this year is the core group of leadership is the same and is pushing everyone to try to be better and to try to hold each other a little bit more accountable.”

Schweinsteiger again focused on the Fire’s game style, a phrase he used frequently in 2017.

“We had very many games where we played 45 minutes or 60 minutes on a high level,” he said. “My wish for this season is that we can play the games in 90 minutes on a high level (and) of course to qualify for the playoffs. That’s the most important for me first of all and then to be more competitive than maybe we were last year in the big matches against big teams.”

Veljko Paunovic in search of consistency as Fire begin preseason

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Veljko Paunovic in search of consistency as Fire begin preseason

When Nelson Rodriguez took over as Fire general manager towards the end of the 2015 season, he talked about a long-term plan. As him and coach Veljko Paunovic enter the third year together, 2018 represents a significant season for the duo.

While the regular season success of last year showed significant progress, the early playoff exit showed there is still further to go for the Fire to become the “championship program” Rodriguez speaks of repeatedly. Tuesday marked the first day of training for the Fire in 2018 even though the roster, by Rodriguez’s own admission, is “incomplete.”

The rookie class, which features two top 10 draft picks in Jon Bakero and Mo Adams and a homegrown signing in Grant Lillard who likely would have been in that range as well had he been eligible for the draft, could help improve the team. On the flip side, the trade of David Accam leaves a big hole in the attack.

Tuesday’s training session at the Toyota Park Dome in Bridgeview marked the first time for the rookies and other new arrivals to train with the Fire. At this point fitness is more of a focus than during the season, but Paunovic has other goals in mind as well.

“Getting the new guys on the same page with the other guys in terms of how we train, what our values, how we behave, what is our work ethic and everything that we have to introduce to them in the first week,” Paunovic said. “On the other side we are also working on our fitness and from the first day we will start to work on our style and just remind the guys who are returning from the last year and the new guys have to get on the same page as everyone else.”

Rodriguez said he was excited by the opening of camp, but also told the players beforehand that nothing is guaranteed.

“Everything needs to be earned,” Rodriguez said. “The returning players and the veterans maybe have a little bit of a head start, but nothing is promised other than we will make every decision that we think is in the best interest of winning, upholding our values and serving our community.”

The group was a bit short-handed on Tuesday with Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster both in national team camp and Johan Kappelhof not having traveled to the U.S. while he awaits the birth of a child. Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic are working out to recover from ACL tears, but won’t be with the group.

Three trialists are on the training camp roster: winger Josh Gatt, Uruguayan defender Maxi Moreira and goalkeeper Sam Howard. Gatt is notable for being a speedstar in his prime with then-Norwegian champions Molde, but knee injuries have limited him since. The 26-year-old American played with Colorado and Minnesota last year, his first in MLS, and had his option declined after the season. There were two players from the Fire’s academy in training as well.

With so many faces not there yet and likely future additions still to be made, the team doesn’t yet resemble what will be on display for the season opener on March 10. However, Paunovic is hoping to see consistency to improve upon last year.

“I think last year we just showed what we are capable of and this year we have to have more consistency in everything we do on and off the field,” he said. “I think we established our style, but I’m going to start with the defense. I think we allowed too many goals, sometimes too innocent and not being concentrated and focused on what’s going on on the field. We could have avoided all that and that’s the first thing we want to improve. Then I think it’s going to be very important to work on our set pieces, offensive set pieces, which we didn’t have a good year last year. These are the things that you can immediately see and recognize that have to improve.”

What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

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What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

For much of this winter, it appeared the Fire would enter 2018 with much of the same team that had the third best record in the league in 2017.

There were only minor surprises when the team announced which options it picked up and which players were cut loose. Homegrown signing Grant Lillard was the first addition of the offseason on Jan. 10 and that was expected after he completed his college career.

However, Nelson Rodriguez was apparently busy in the week leading up to the draft and saw that work turned into three trades on Friday. The Fire got two picks in the top 10 and sent away two starters from last year, including key winger David Accam.

There were already holes to fill on the roster, but the exits of Accam and goalkeeper Matt Lampson mean there are a couple more position needs with training camp starting on Monday.

“The roster is very much incomplete,” Rodriguez said after the draft. “There’s still quite a bit of work left to do. While it’s ideal to go into training camp with something that more closely resembles the roster that you’re looking to get into the season with. In our case, it is more important that we continue to add pieces that we think fit our style, fit our mentality, fit our philosophy and it’s important now that we remain disciplined in that pursuit and not feel pressure to just close the deal.”

A look at a potential starting lineup based on the current roster isn’t by any means bad, but it does need some improvement to match or improve upon last year.

Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty again give the Fire an elite central midfield pairing, Nemanja Nikolic is back after winning the Golden Boot in his first year and the defense should be somewhat solid depending on how Lillard and Jonathan Campbell fill in for the departed Joao Meira. However, goalkeeper is a question mark with Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland having two MLS appearances between them and Nikolic needs help in the attack with Accam and Arturo Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic expected to be out until at least July while recovering from torn ACLs.

Seeing Accam leave seemed like an inevitability at some point after years of rumors and complaints. Now that it’s a reality, it’s up to Rodriguez and the Fire to deliver an attack that can be productive without him after he had 14 goals and eight assists last year.

Second-year player Daniel Johnson is the immediate fill-in for Accam. He showed flashes of his potential last year as a rookie, but was limited to 125 after dealing with multiple injuries in 2017. Jon Bakero has the ability to step in underneath Nikolic, but that is an important role to throw at a rookie. The Fire’s dip at the end of last season coincided with de Leeuw’s injury so getting production out of that spot will be important.

The Fire could probably do just fine with one of Johnson or Bakero playing significant minutes in the first half of the season, but both? That’s asking an awful lot out of inexperienced players and it’s why the attack is likely where other moves will come.

Rodriguez said after the draft that there had been more trades in the works and some may still happen.

“We were very aggressive in Florida and here in Philadelphia in trying to make trades within the league and we were unsuccessful,” he said. “Some of those opportunities were by design, by our pursuit. There are still some opportunities which we wish to continue exploring and we will continue to make efforts.”

Rodriguez said the Accam trade gave the team “a lot of flexibility.” The allocation money gives the Fire an expanded salary cap of sorts to work with. Rodriguez said it “further opens up targets in the league” and he also added that they have specific players in mind.

“We also have three targets in particular outside of MLS,” he said. “I would say it’s possible given our current stated resources, our salary budget against the cap, it’s possible to potentially add two of those. Again, those are international deals. You first have to get the deal done before you can worry about the salary budget implications, but we will continue to be deliberate in our actions and disciplined in our attention.”

The Fire's roster is at 21, with two of those going to miss half the season due to injury, after finishing last season with 30.