Stefan Cleveland

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.

Fire officially sign top two picks, Daniel Johnson and Stefan Cleveland

Fire officially sign top two picks, Daniel Johnson and Stefan Cleveland

It didn't take long for the Chicago Fire to wrap up the signings of the club's top two 2017 draft picks.

The club announced the signings of first-round pick Daniel Johnson and second-rounder Stefan Cleveland on Monday. Both contracts are one-year guaranteed deals with club options through 2020.

Johnson was taken No. 11 overall and became the Fire's first pick after the No. 3 overall pick was traded away for general allocation money. Johnson is a wide midfielder who began his collegiate career at Maryland before finishing up with two years at Louisville.

Cleveland, a 6-foot-2 goalkeeper, also transferred to Louisville to finish his college ball. Cleveland spent four years at Dartmouth, starting three of them. The Ivy League does not grant redshirt years so Cleveland, who did not play his first year on campus in 2012, transferred to Louisville for his final year of eligibility. Cleveland then became a teammate of Johnson.

Cleveland is likely to be the team's No. 3 goalkeeper behind Jorge Bava and Matt Lampson. He would be a logical candidate to spent time on loan in 2017 to get playing time.

With these two officially signed, the Fire have 24 players under contract. Three more draft picks, second-rounder Guillermo Delgado, third-rounder Brondt Bronico and fourth-round pick Matej Dekovic remain unsigned.

Fire trade into second round to make two picks

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USA TODAY

Fire trade into second round to make two picks

The Chicago Fire entered draft day with no second round picks, but traded with Toronto to land two early second round picks.

The Fire sent $75,000 in targeted allocation money to Toronto for the fourth and fifth picks in the second round. The Fire then took Louisville goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland with the 26th overall pick and followed up by taking Guillermo Delgado with the 27th pick.

Cleveland was a college teammate of the Fire's first round pick, Daniel Johnson, at Louisville. The Fire have two goalkeepers under contract in Matt Lampson and recently signed Jorge Bava. Cleveland could be one of the early favorites for the No. 3 goalkeeper spot, although he doesn't have a guaranteed contract and will likely face competition in preseason camp.

"We really like his approach to goalkeeping, his comfort away from the line, his steadiness, there’s an overall maturity to his game that we liked and we really like our goalkeeper corps now," Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said. "We think there’s a nice blend of hierarchy, age and experience so we feel very good about how that competition will begin at the start of training camp.”

Delgado, 22, was born in Madrid, but left Spain to play college soccer for Delaware. He quickly stood out with 15 goals and five assists as a freshman. He notched double-digit goals in all four years, including 12 goals and eight assists as a senior. He finished his collegiate career with 49 goals and 19 assists in 78 matches.

"I'm excited and thrilled to give everything I have on the field during the next year," Delgado said on the draft podium.

An extra wrinkle on the Delgado pick is that he would count as an international player for the Fire, as confirmed by the club. That gives the Fire nine international players with only eight international slots for them. That means either Delgado has an uphill climb to make the roster or the Fire have moves coming involving either a trade for an international slot or a move to trade away a current international player.

Soon after the draft Rodriguez was asked if Delgado was worth the pick as another international player.

“We selected him so that’s the answer," Rodriguez said. "What we believe is this is a very good player. A player who is dynamic off the ball, knows how to find space, knows how to exploit it. A proven finisher and has good pedigree. He got his soccer education, if you will, in Spain. Again a player that we believe adds a different element to what we currently have.”