Rafael Ramos

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.

As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

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As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

General manager Nelson Rodriguez has taken his time this offseason, but things have been picked up in the past week and will continue to do so with the draft taking place on Friday.

Rodriguez spoke with reporters on a conference call a day after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s return became official and just hours after Jorge Bava’s exit and the Cam Lindley trade were announced as expected. Those topics and plenty more were discussed serving as a state of the team with offseason activity ramping up.

First off, the big news remains Schweinsteiger’s return. Rodriguez would not disclose the German’s salary, but did say that there is no option for a second year on the contract. The two sides would have to renegotiate just like they did this winter for him to return in 2019.

“Both parties were keenly interested in continuing the relationship so I think that made things a lot easier,” Rodriguez said. “There are always some little details that need to be worked out and I think that’s what prolonged the discussions, but I believe both parties felt reasonably confident that we would continue together.”

Elsewhere, the finalization of the Lindley trade allowed Rodriguez to discuss some of the details of the breakdown in negotiations with the homegrown prospect. The Fire sent the rights to Lindley to Orlando for Rafa Ramos and $100,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (broken down as $50,000 in both 2018 and 2019). Lindley signed a four-year contract with Orlando.

The Fire approached Lindley last winter, but he returned to North Carolina for his sophomore season.

“When we spoke this year, Cameron indicated that he would prefer to start his career outside of Chicago and so we were able to fulfill that wish for him, but in the process we thought we did very well for ourselves in acquiring a very talented, young player with professional experience and then on top of that getting allocation money, which can serve us,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s an instance where it’s a win-win for Orlando and for us.”

Ramos, 23, will likely be the backup to both Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent. Lindley is a 20-year-old central midfielder who could have provided depth behind Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty this year.

When asked why Lindley didn’t want to sign with the Fire, Rodriguez said he didn’t ask Lindley.

“I’m only concerned with players who are in our locker room and want to play for us,” Rodriguez said.

Bava’s exit was under different circumstances. The 36-year-old goalkeeper expressed a desire to return to his home country of Uruguay, which he was able to do by landing with Liverpool FC Montevideo. The Fire and Bava mutually agreed to terminate his contract.

“He came to us and let us know that he had a playing opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “I think the second part of it is that we indicated to Jorge that we were very comfortable with Matt (Lampson) and Richard (Sanchez) and that it was going to be difficult for him to unseat one or both of those guys.”

Those moves put the Fire’s roster at 21 heading into Friday’s draft. The first two rounds will take place in Philadelphia starting at 10 a.m. The Fire have the 15th and 38th picks.

Rodriguez said the Fire’s draft is very different this year after having the top pick in 2016 and the third pick in 2017. The Fire traded both of those picks.

“With the first pick and the third pick, teams generally come to you,” Rodriguez said. “My experience is that there are several teams going for the clubs that hold those top three spots now so it’s almost flipped in that if we want to be active, no one is looking to move up to 15.

“I wouldn’t discount our making a trade because we have had conversations, admittedly all with teams ahead of us in the draft, no one below us in the draft. But some of that may be dependant upon how the draft actually goes. Usually you lock in on one or two players, you don’t want to necessarily trade up without knowing either or both of those players might be available. It might be a situation that occurs during the draft as opposed to prior to the draft.”

As for other potential additions, Rodriguez didn’t say much. He wouldn’t comment on the continuing Juan Quintero rumors and reports. The news is seemingly going in both directions on that front.

Rodriguez did comment on a potential return for Juninho, the Brazilian midfielder who was on loan with the Fire last season. Mexican club Tijuana holds his rights after the loan expired.

“We told Juni and his agent that we were not going to offer a transfer to acquire his services, but if he could extricate himself from that contract, we would be interested in having him return to the club,” Rodriguez said.

When asked what he believes the roster still needs, Rodriguez said “across all our lines,” even mentioning goalkeeper as part of that. At this point most additions will be for depth, but Rodriguez mentioned the need to replace midfielder Djordje Mihailovic and forward Michael de Leeuw, both of which suffered torn ACLs last in the 2017 season. Rodriguez said they are hoping for those players to return from injury in July or August, but obviously things can change as they continue to rehab.

Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando

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Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando

For the past two offseasons, Cam Lindley’s name has popped up as a potential key addition for the Fire.

The North Carolina sophomore has been one of the top midfielders in college soccer the past two seasons and has established himself as a good MLS prospect. The Fire held his homegrown rights after he traveled from Indianapolis to play with the Fire’s academy in high school, even helping the U-18 team win the Development Academy national title in 2015.

The Fire failed to sign him last offseason, with Lindley electing to return to college. When the college season ended and negotiations started up again this winter, Lindley turned down the Fire’s homegrown offer. Initially, it was expected that meant he was returning to school, but now Paul Tenorio has reported that the Fire traded Lindley’s homegrown rights to Orlando.


In Tenorio’s reported deal, which he said was still being finalized, the Fire receive right back Rafael Ramos and allocation money from the Lions. The move means Orlando gets the exclusive rights within MLS to negotiate with Lindley and if he signs he will still count as a homegrown for Orlando.

Lindley did not train at all with the Fire in the past year, instead electing to stay in North Carolina when he played in the PDL (a summer league for college players). In 2016, Lindley played with the Fire’s PDL team. The Fire’s three other best homegrown prospects who played in college this past season, Grant Lillard, Andrew Gutman and Mauricio Pineda, all spent some time in training with the Fire in 2017. Pineda stayed after practice multiple times with coach Veljko Paunovic in one-on-one drills. Lillard, the only senior of the four, signed his homegrown deal with the Fire earlier this week.

On the one hand, the Fire get a player in Ramos, who is 23 years old and could help provide depth at both right back and left back. The Portuguese player made 39 MLS appearances in three years with Orlando, including 24 starts in 2015, but injuries contributed to a lack of playing time last season when

Ramos played 55 MLS minutes. A hamstring injury limited him in 2016 and again in the 2017 preseason when he was expected to be the starter at right back. Once he returned, Scott Sutter had established himself at the position.

Ramos vented his frustration at a lack of playing time in an Orlando Sentinel story in October.

On the other hand, Lindley is a player who was racking up the accolades at UNC. As a freshman he tallied seven assists and was named national Freshman of the Year by Top Drawer Soccer and a first team All-ACC pick. This season, he had seven goals and 13 assists and was a first team All-American by United Soccer Coaches, Top Drawer Soccer and College Soccer News in addition to being named ACC Midfielder of the Year. The Tar Heels made it to the College Cup semifinals both years.

The midfielder could be good enough to receive interest from European teams, which could make it good business for the Fire to get something from within MLS for him instead of letting him go for free.

If the trade materializes, it will be a failure on the Fire’s part to convince a talented young player who spent time in the team’s academy to sign, but also a success in getting something of value in return for a player who may not want to sign with the team.