The preseason has finished and it's officially a match week for the Chicago Fire.
The Fire, which travel to Columbus on Saturday for the season opener, returned from preseason training in Florida on Sunday and began the team's first full day back in Chicago with the team's annual kickoff luncheon on Monday. The team's players, coaches and staff interact with fans and the media ahead of the upcoming season.
Two players, UNC-Charlotte products Brandt Bronico and Matej Dekovic, were introduced to the audience a couple hours before the club announced the two 2017 draft picks had signed contracts. Bronico, a central midfielder drafted in the third round, and Dekovic, a center back/left back taken in the fourth round, both signed one-year deals with club options for the following three years.
Dekovic could add some much needed depth in central defense, but is a logical candidate to go out on loan to USL affiliate Tulsa. Dekovic, 23, is Croatian and counts as an international player even though he played three years collegiately with the 49ers. The Fire have nine international players on the roster with eight slots for them. The Fire could trade for an international slot, but if Dekovic goes out on loan he won't count against that number. Coach Veljko Paunovic was asked about potential outgoing loans, but didn't give specifics other than to say they have "made some decisions" and "are still working on that."
Bronico and Dekovic don't figure to play major roles this season, but there could still be more moves ahead. The lone trialist in the final week of the Fire's training camp, former Columbus Crew defender Chad Barson, was not retained. General manager Nelson Rodriguez said Ryan Taylor will be the latest right back to join the Fire on trial. Taylor, 32, made 55 English Premier League appearances with Wigan Athletic from 2005-2009 and 61 more with Newcastle United from 2009-2015. This season he has made 12 appearances for Port Vale in England's third tier, the most recent of which on Jan. 20 when he scored a penalty kick.
"Ryan Taylor will join us this week," Rodriguez said. "He's a very experienced player, he plays a lot of different positions, which we like. We like that versatility. We love the attitude that he's expressed towards coming on trial, which is not easy for an accomplished player. We'll look at him this week, maybe look at him for two weeks. I don't know how long it will take, but he is an option for us."
The Englishman would also take up an international slot.
A potentially bigger move is the one Rodriguez hinted at regarding a third designated player. Currently, David Accam and Nemanja Nikolic are the Fire's two DPs, meaning one more DP spot is available.
"We have the latitude, we have the cap space, the budget space and the resources within MLS and within our ownership to add another DP," Rodriguez said. "We've looked at a few players. Two of the players that we had on our list, we didn't make offers for so I want to be clear the two players we were tracking, one signed in Mexico with a big club in Mexico and one went to China for big money so they're off our list.
"There are still two players that we're tracking. I think as we get deeper into the start of the season, even though the first window is open, it's tougher. I would say we would likely look at the summer, or, as we did last year, forego the summer and concentrate on January. I still think it's hard to integrate players midseason."
A milk carton was a more likely place to find Bobby Portis than on a basketball floor playing big minutes for the majority of his second season.
He could often be found in the locker room before games and listening to the older players talk to the media afterward, trying his best to fight off the frustration and admitted confusion that comes with the regression of not getting playing time.
When Portis did play, he looked nothing like the confident and borderline cocky rookie who often referred to himself in the third person in interviews. He didn't know when he would play, how long he would be out there or even worse, what was expected of him.
The trade of Taj Gibson at the deadline — preceded by the temporary benching of Nikola Mirotic — put Portis back in the spotlight and he's intent on making the most of it during the last 23 games of the regular season.
"It's fun. You know go out there every day just to know that it's another day I'm going to play," Portis said. "That's the biggest thing for me. I feel like that's already a confidence builder right there, just coming into every game knowing that I'm in the rotation. It's great fun to go out there and play."
It's no secret the front office the Bulls want Portis to succeed and not add him to the ledger of some of the first-round disappointments that can be recalled in recent memory.
The trade of Gibson was certainly underlined with the mantra that Portis should play and the way was going to be cleared for Portis, one way or another. Scoring 19 with eight rebounds against the Celtics on national TV right before the All-Star break probably gave Portis enough validation considering he was thrust into the starting lineup at power forward soon after.
"I don't care about nobody judging me," Portis said. "At the end of the day I'm going to play basketball. That's my job. I'm going to go out there and do the things I do well. I feel like sometimes people misconstrue just because you don't play and they can say some things like that. I don't really care about anybody judging me at this point. At the end of the day I'm still going to be Bobby Portis at the end of the day."
Well, clearly, the third person thing hasn't left the second-year forward, but he said he stayed in the gym waiting on his opportunity, even through a quick but confusing stint to Hoffman Estates to the D-League.
"Just being hungry. Humble and hungry," Portis said. "You know one thing I always strive off of is being humble and hungry. That kept me sane. My mom, I talked to her a lot. She kept me grounded. It's kind of tough not playing and going through the season knowing that some games you might play, you might not play. You know it's about waiting your turn, but at the same time you have to keep working."
Being the fifth big in Fred Hoiberg's rotation didn't leave him a lot of room for Portis to get much run or even find a rhythm, and like many others who've found themselves out of the rotation unexpectedly, it was without much of an explanation.
"Nah, I didn't really know what I could do to get minutes," Portis said. "The one thing that I know that I always do is just come in here every day, work as hard as I can, let the dominos fall how they fall. Every day I come in here, just bust my butt for some minutes, but sometimes it wouldn't work."
Now that he has found himself into Hoiberg's good graces, his improving range has allowed both units to play similiarly.
"I think Bobby has done a real nice job," Hoiberg said. "He was a huge part of our win against Boston in our game right before the break. He just goes out and plays with so much energy. What I really like about him right now is he has no hesitation on his shot. He's stepping into his 3 with good rhythm."