Richard Sanchez

2018 Fire preview: Defenders and goalkeepers

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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.

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

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Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.

5 things to watch for during the Fire’s offseason

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5 things to watch for during the Fire’s offseason

The Fire made the playoffs for the first time in five years, but an ugly 4-0 loss at home meant the postseason appearance merely extended the season by three days and resulted in an eighth straight season without a playoff win.

As the dust begins to settle from the 2017 season, there are plenty of questions heading into the offseason. Nearly every MLS team will have a decent amount of turnover in an offseason, but the Fire could have some important contributors not come back in 2018.

Here are five storylines to watch for as the offseason progresses.

1. Negotiating a return for Bastian Schweinsteiger

As long as Schweinsteiger was with the Fire, all the headlines were about him. For that to continue for another year, he and the team will have to come to another agreement. The German’s contract was a one-year deal and both sides have said they are willing to do another deal, but nothing certain has come out.

A week before the playoff game, general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave an update of sorts on the negotiations.

“I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything,” Rodriguez said.

After the Fire lost to the Red Bulls, coach Veljko Paunovic was asked about the chances of a Schweinsteiger return and mostly deferred to Rodriguez.

“Obviously we want Bastian back,” Paunovic said. “We want to have a man and a player like him, on and off the field. But obviously this is not the question even for me.”

As for Schweinsteiger?

“As Nelson Rodriguez said, we are in talks,” Schweinsteiger said. “We will see how it is. It is the same like with every player here.”

It sounds like negotiations will ramp up in the coming days and weeks, but this may not be resolved quickly.

The Fire likely won’t be able to replace Schweinsteiger’s international celebrity status or his experience. It is possible the team could replace his production, but that won’t be easy either.

The German's options may not be plentiful either. He has said he doesn’t want to play elsewhere in Germany or England and clubs in other top leagues in Europe may hesitate to take him at the price he was getting from the Fire.

This is by far the biggest story of the Fire’s offseason, and the quicker the resolution, the better so Rodriguez can plan the rest of the offseason around it.

2. David Accam transfer rumors

The rumors about Accam’s suitors abroad will persist. If the Fire want to cash in, this would be the time. His contract runs out after 2018 and he’s made it known previously that he would like to play in Europe again.

Rodriguez will have a tough decision to make. Either keep Accam in the hopes of making a push in 2018 and risk losing him for nothing or sell him in January and hope you can replace his production.

Further complicating things is Accam’s nerve issue in his hip. He has been dealing with it for weeks and it was a true day-to-day thing where some days he would feel fine and others he would be in pain. That injury may cause other teams to take pause when offering a transfer fee for Accam, especially because if he moves in January, that will be in the middle of the European season. Teams looking for a quick fix to finish the season may not get that depending on the recovery process.

3. Potential homegrown signings

The Fire have plenty of high-level prospects in college soccer and will likely add at least one to the roster in 2018. North Carolina sophomores Cameron Lindley and Mauricio Pineda and Indiana defenders senior Grant Lillard and junior Andrew Gutman are all pro prospects.

Lindley, one of the best players in college soccer, could play right away in the midfield with the injuries of Michael de Leeuw and Mihailovic keeping them out for the start of 2018.

However, the most likely homegrown signing is Lillard. The Hinsdale native is a big body at 6-foot-4, but is noted for his athleticism as well as his size. He trained with the Fire this summer and could potentially step right in or at least compete with Jonathan Campbell for playing time at center back next to Johan Kappelhof if Joao Meira, who is one of two players the Fire do not have an option for, does not return. Lillard is ranked as the third best player in college soccer by TopDrawerSoccer.com. Lindley is ranked second.

Rodriguez mentioned Lillard as the most likely to sign when talking just over a week ago to reporters, but said, as he has before, that he will wait for the college season to end for these players to begin talking with them about signing pro deals.

4. The goalkeeper situation

Matt Lampson had his ups and downs, but the switch to Richard Sanchez in the regular season finale made it appear the position was up for grabs. Jorge Bava was brought in to be the starter last offseason, but struggled early and was replaced by Lampson before an elbow injury ended his season. Sanchez, a younger keeper at 23, was brought in to add depth, but could also be the team’s goalkeeper of the future.

Will both Lampson and Sanchez be back to fight for the spot or will Rodriguez make an addition to bolster the spot?

5. More roster flexibility

By the end of the offseason, the Fire were up against the limit for international slots and that meant any summer moves would require some extra jockeying. That didn’t mean necessarily mean any moves were prevented by that, but it did make things more complicated.

Even if Schweinsteiger is brought back there are as many as five foreign players who could realistically not be back: Bava, Joao Meira, David Arshakyan, John Goossens and Matej Dekovic. If five leave, the Fire will have three spots (they were able to go over the limit due to Bava and Goossens going on the disabled list).

In addition, if Juninho does not come back now that his loan from Tijuana has expired, there is more salary cap room to go with that. If Juninho and Schweinsteiger don’t return, the midfield will be a position of priority when factoring in the aforementioned injuries to de Leeuw and Mihailovic.