Tony Tchani

2018 Fire preview: Midfield

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USA TODAY

2018 Fire preview: Midfield

The Fire’s midfield underwent a major restructuring in 2017 and it went from being a weakness to a strength. As a result, the unit didn’t see much change entering 2018.

Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger will once again form one of the best central midfield pairings in the league. There are a couple new faces, but the team will still run through them.

Returning players (2017 MLS regular season stats)

Dax McCarty (28 games played, 28 starts, 2,465 minutes, 5 assists)

Bastian Schweinsteiger (24 GP, 23 GS, 1,993 minutes, 3 goals, 6 assists)

Drew Conner (21 GP, 8 GS, 882 minutes, 1 assist)

Djordje Mihailovic (17 GP, 7 GS, 732 minutes)

Brandt Bronico (4 GP, 53 minutes)

Newcomers

Mo Adams (No. 10 pick)

Tony Tchani (trade with Vancouver)

There might be improved depth in this unit with Tchani replacing Juninho and rookie Mo Adams showing signs of being a contributor in preseason. Mihailovic being out for a significant chunk of the season while he recovers from his ACL tear does take away a somewhat different option in midfield, but it’s not clear how he will fit into this lineup when healthy.

Conner got a decent chunk of minutes last season when injuries hit the team hard, but it doesn’t look like they will be easy to come by for him this year. The addition of Rafael Ramos as a backup right back takes away one spot Conner earned minutes in last year. Tchani and Adams coming in with only Juninho leaving means Conner could be further down the depth chart in central midfield unless he beats out Adams for playing time.

Schweinsteiger’s role could see some variation this year. At times in 2017 he played higher up the field and he also played a sweeper/libero role on occasion, but he settled into his more traditional defensive midfield spot by the latter part of the season. With no playmaker on the roster (as general manager Nelson Rodriguez has mentioned the team is still looking for), it appears Schweinsteiger will be one of the players to step into an advanced role in midfield.

Coach Veljko Paunovic said Schweinsteiger will play higher or deeper depending on what he thinks they can take advantage of, and even said the phrase “No. 10” in that context unsolicited after Saturday’s preseason finale.

Tchani and McCarty can be the defensive stalwarts while Schweinsteiger can have more freedom to join in on the attack. If one of them is unavailable, Adams seems like the first choice off the bench given how extensively he played in preseason.

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Tony Tchani adjusting quickly to Fire after being surprised by trade

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Chicago Fire

Tony Tchani adjusting quickly to Fire after being surprised by trade

When Tony Tchani started the Fire’s preseason finale against Tulsa on Saturday, it was hard to tell that he had been with the team for only one training session before that game.

The Fire traded for Tchani, sending $150,000 of Targeted Allocation Money to Vancouver, on Wednesday and his first practice with the team was Friday.

“I feel like he was with us all this time and also I have the feeling that he feels the same,” coach Veljko Paunovic said after Saturday’s game. “Immediately when we spoke (Friday), from the first session we had that walkthrough and preparation for the game, he understood everything perfectly.”

Tchani played with Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger, arguably the two most important players on the Fire’s roster, in central midfield. Tchani and McCarty played more defensive roles while Schweinsteiger had the freedom to be more involved in the attack.

Tchani has been in MLS since 2010 and has made 169 career MLS regular season starts with 10 more playoff starts so him fitting in quickly may not be a big surprise.

“I think so far, so good,” Tchani said. “I knew a few guys on the team, which was pretty much easier just to get to know those guys.”

Tchani was teammates with defender Christian Dean in Vancouver before Dean was traded to the Fire last summer. He also played with assistant coach Eric Gehrig for three years in Columbus.

While easing into his new team hasn’t been a difficult challenge for Tchani, the trade did catch him off guard. Vancouver traded defender Tim Parker to the New York Red Bulls for midfielder Felipe Martins and $500,000 of allocation money. Felipe’s addition made Tchani more expendable for Vancouver.

“I was surprised because I had a pretty good preseason so I didn’t expect anything,” Tchani said. “And I played every game. If I would have expected it I was hoping to be at least benched in one of those games to give me a heads up. I think they did a pretty good job hiding it from me.”

Adding another experienced, MLS proven central midfielder to the team provides Paunovic with more flexibility. Tchani can take on a similar role to the one Juninho had last season.

The Brazilian formed a starting midfield trio with McCarty and Schweinsteiger nine times in 2017 similar to the way Tchani joined McCarty and Schweinsteiger on Saturday, but Juninho was also a solid fill-in when either of the Fire stalwarts were unavailable. Juninho made 17 starts last year, but also missed some time due to injury so Tchani could be in line for more minutes this season.

After front office said additions were needed, Fire trade for Tony Tchani

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USA TODAY

After front office said additions were needed, Fire trade for Tony Tchani

A day after general manager Nelson Rodriguez talked about how he thinks the team needed improvements in multiple areas, Rodriguez finalized a trade to bring in a new player.

The Fire traded for midfielder Tony Tchani, sending $150,000 of Targeted Allocation Money to Vancouver. The 28-year-old midfielder could take on the role Juninho filled for the Fire last season, which was to fill in for either Dax McCarty or Bastian Schweinsteiger at defensive midfield or on certain occasions play alongside the duo.

Tchani isn't the playmaker Rodriguez talked about the Fire needing, but his addition could free up Schweinsteiger to play higher up the field. Coach Veljko Paunovic had talked about Schweinsteiger being more involved in the Fire's attack when Schweinsteiger was first added last season, but he gradually shifted into a deeper role.

Tchani was born in Cameroon and has represented the Indomitable Lions on two occasions, including an African Cup of Nations qualifier in 2016, but he has U.S. citizenship so he will not count as an international on the roster.

The University of Virginia product has been in MLS since 2010 and has played for four teams (New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC, Columbus Crew and Vancouver), but is probably most known for his five-year stint with the Crew. Tchani has made 169 MLS starts in his career and was a regular starter on Columbus' MLS Cup finalist team in 2015. Last season Tchani made 26 starts for the Whitecaps.

The price wasn't expensive (David Accam went for more than 10 times as much allocation money and Dax McCarty went for nearly three times as much a year ago), but Tchani should play regular minutes for the Fire in 2018, even if not as a consistent starter like he has been for the past few years of his career.

Defensive midfield depth likely wasn't the biggest hole on the Fire's roster. Rookie Mo Adams has had an impressive preseason and could have been a competent backup, but by adding Tchani, the Fire won't have to rely on a rookie to play significant minutes. That said, Tchani does give the Fire plenty of MLS experience and gives Paunovic some added flexibility with how he chooses to use the midfield.