Fire gear up for playoffs, Dynamo

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Fire gear up for playoffs, Dynamo

The Fire goes into its first Major League Soccer playoff match since 2009 on Wednesday lacking momentum and postseason experience. Maybe that matters, maybe not.

For most of the 34-match regular season the Fire (17-11-6) was a feel-good, uplifting story. In the last five matches, though, the Fire was 1-3-1 and lost to two clubs (Philadelphia and New England) that had long been eliminated from playoff contention. In its last match, with a chance to claim second place in the Eastern Conference with a win before a sellout home crowd, the Fire scored first but settled for a 1-1 draw against D.C. United.

As far as postseason experience goes, the team doesnt have much. Only eight Fire players have played in an MLS playoff match, and only four did it with the Fire. Chris Rolfe played in 14, captain Logan Pause 13, Gonzalo Segares 12 and Patrick Nyarko four. They will add to their numbers on Wednesday when they take on the Houston Dynamo (14-9-11 in the regular season) at Toyota Park at 8 p.m.

The Dynamo is long on playoff experience, with most of the team that went to last years MLS Cup still on the roster. Houston has also won twice as many MLS Cups (two, in 2006 and 2007) than the Fire (one, in its inaugural campaign of 1998). The Dynamo lost last years championship match 1-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

While Houston finished four points behind the Fire in fifth place, the Dynamo season included a run to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The Fire lost its lone U.S. Open Cup, the clubs lone tournament appearance of 2012.

Still, the Fire has some things going in what MLS has dubbed the Knockout Round of its current playoff format. For one, there's familiarity with the opponent.

Its crazy in this league, said Fire Defender-of-the-Year Arne Friedrich, who starred in Germany before coming here. Weve played Vancouver once. Well be playing Houston for the fourth time. This is MLS. Welcome to America.

Not only has the Fire played the Dynamo three times already this season, the Fire won the season series.

The first match was the strangest of the campaign for both clubs. It didnt last the full 90 minutes. Officials called it a 1-1 draw after 66 minutes because of severe weather at Toyota Park on April 15. The teams were scoreless on July 3 at BBVA Compass Stadium, and goals by Nyarko, Daniel Paladini and Alex gave the Fire a 3-1 victory in Bridgeview on Sept. 2.

The Fire has also been solid at home (11-3-3), despite the unimpressive finish to the regular season, and has a good track record (6-3-2) in the first round of its playoff matches over the years. Though the Fire missed postseason play in 2010 and 2011, the Fire is in the playoffs for the 12th time in 15 seasons by far the best success rate of Chicagos major pro teams.

The Bulls and Blackhawks made it in 10 of their first 15 campaigns, the Bears eight, the Cubs four and the Sox two. In the last 15 seasons the Bulls had eight playoff appearances, the Blackhawks and Cubs five, the Bears four and the Sox three. An interesting statistical tidbit, if nothing else.

Wednesdays match will be the Fires first-ever on Halloween and its first postseason meeting against Houston. The Dynamo is led by forward Will Bruin, who has 17 goals in his first two MLS seasons with 12 of them coming this season. Houstons most dangerous player, though, is midfielder Brad Davis. His 12 assists are twice as many as any of his teammates, and he also had eight regular-season goals. Midfielder Ricardo Clark will be marking his eighth season on an MLS playoff qualifier.

The teams made one big trade, on March 23, 2011, that helped both clubs. The Fire acquired speedy Dominic Oduro for injury-plagued striker Calen Carr. Both performed well for their new teams the last two seasons, though neither are starters now.

More than anything, the Fire has to shake off the disappointing draw with D.C. United, which deprived the club of a weeks rest before starting its playoff run.

It was disappointing, and it stinks, said Nyarko. But its just one extra game, and its good that its at home.

If the Fire does win on Wednesday the next step in the playoffs will be even more difficult a two-game home-and-home semifinal series against Eastern Conference regular season champion Sporting Kansas City. That round would begin on Sunday at Toyota Park if the Fire can get by the Dynamo.

2012 MLS playoffs Predicitions

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Knockout Round -- FIRE over Houston; Semifinals Sporting Kansas City over FIRE, D.C. United over New York. Conference Final Sporting Kansas City over D.C. United.

WESTERN CONFERENCE: Knockout Round Vancouver over Los Angeles; Semifinals San Jose over Vancouver, Seattle over Real Salt Lake. Conference Final San Jose over Seattle.

MLS CUP: San Jose over Sporting Kansas City.

As rumors pile up, Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez says team has a "sense of urgency"

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USA TODAY

As rumors pile up, Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez says team has a "sense of urgency"

As the beginnings of a cold Chicago winter start to take hold of the city, the rumor mill has started to heat up for the Chicago Fire.

Major League Soccer’s clubs are not able to make official moves until after MLS Cup takes place on Dec. 10, which means rumors will remain just that for another week and a half. So when Fire general manager was asked about a potential Sean Johnson trade, as was reported yesterday, he wasn’t able to comment in a substantive way.

“Sean had a good season for us,” Rodriguez said Friday afternoon. “There’s a trade moratorium until after MLS Cup and like every player on the team we’re constantly evaluating opportunities and possibilities.”

Compare that to what Rodriguez said last December about transfer rumors involving David Accam and it’s not hard to notice the difference. Rodriguez vehemently denied anything regarding Accam then and the Ghanaian stayed. This time around regarding Johnson, Rodriguez said the team is “evaluating opportunities.” There is a three-hour trade window on Dec. 11 in advance of the expansion draft for Atlanta and Minnesota on Dec. 12.

Rodriguez said there have been discussions about trades before the expansion draft.

“We have been having several conversations with a few different teams,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve called and inquired about players and discussed possibilities about acquiring players and also have received calls from teams inquiring about our players. I think there’s a general mood around the league that people want to get those deals done in advance of the expansion draft so that they know who they’re protecting and otherwise.”

Teams will be able to protect 11 players and homegrown players will not be eligible for selection. As the roster currently stands, the Fire have 17 players under contract and four homegrown players so only two players would be left unprotected and that’s before a potential Johnson trade.

As far as acquiring players from outside the league, Rodriguez said the staff has been busy scouting both college games and foreign leagues. Coach Veljko Paunovic and assistant Marko Mitrovic “remain abroad” while scout Matt Pearson has returned after watching players live in October and November.

Nothing seems to have changed in regards to what Rodriguez said the team needs. He still spoke of “players who represent leadership, experience, poise on the ball, particularly in the central midfield slots,” and a “gamebreaker” who can create or score a goal.

Some of the rumored names this offseason are of a higher profile than last winter. While following through on such moves is all that matters, Rodriguez said things are different in the way the front office has approached this offseason.

“I think what we all feel is a sense of urgency that we need to win,” Rodriguez said. “We need to prove that we can win and we need to win consistently. That’s our mindset.”

Rodriguez, assistant Logan Pause and goalkeeper coach Aleksandar Saric have been scouting college games. Rodriguez said the decision to sign homegrown players from college has not yet been made. The plan is to wait until the end of the college season for all teams to talk with coaches and families of prospects. North Carolina freshmen Cam Lindley and Mauricio Pineda, Indiana junior Grand Lillard and Indiana sophomore Andrew Gutman are some of the Fire’s top prospects in college. Indiana was recently eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, but UNC’s Elite Eight game is tonight.

As for some of the players the Fire declined options on last week, there is a chance that some will return like the way Razvan Cocis did last season after the Fire didn’t pick up his option.

“We are still in discussions on a few of the players whose options we did not select, but we’re still talking to them to see if the possibility to bring them back still exists,” Rodriguez said.

Sean Johnson reportedly nearing trade to Atlanta in busy day of Fire rumors

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USA TODAY

Sean Johnson reportedly nearing trade to Atlanta in busy day of Fire rumors

With the MLS Cup final still nine days away, Major League Soccer teams can't make trades until the day after Toronto hosts Seattle for the league's championship, but that hasn't stopped the rumor mill from churning out some juicy potential Chicago Fire moves.

Sam Stejskal of MLSSoccer.com reported that a deal that would send Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson to expansion team Atlanta is nearing completion. The report says the Fire would receive general allocation money in return for the 27-year-old. If the report is accurate, Johnson would be traded after MLS Cup and before the expansion draft.

Johnson, who has spent his entire pro career with the Fire, is from Lilburn, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. The local ties, combined with the fact that Matt Lampson began the season as the Fire's No. 1 goalkeeper, has fueled speculation that Johnson could join his hometown club in its expansion season.

The Fire had picked up Johnson's option, along with eight others, last week. If the Fire had not picked up Johnson's option he would have gone into the league's re-entry process, which would have meant the Fire would not have received anything in return for him if a team selected him.

To go further down the rabbit hole of potential moves, Paul Tenorio of FourFourTwo reported that American national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan is "exploring" a return to MLS. Guzan, who is currently with Middlesbrough in the Premier League, would be subject to the league's allocation order. The Fire have the top allocation spot until the expansion teams, Atlanta and Minnesota, move into the top two spots once the current season ends after MLS Cup. Atlanta will have the top spot in the allocation order and the Fire would have the third spot, also behind Minnesota.

Guzan is a Chicagoland product who went to Providence Catholic. It would be irresponsible to connect the Johnson report to the Guzan rumor without any more information to go on, but if Johnson is traded Guzan could potentially become an option for the Fire.

Finally, in a busy day of Chicago Fire-related rumors, ESPNFC reported that the Fire are in the running for Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic, who is currently with Legia Warsaw. Nikolic, 28, has scored 13 goals in 28 appearances for the Polish club this season and has reportedly been linked with Premier League team Hull City.

Throw this fresh pile of potential offseason moves in with the ongoing Bastian Schweinsteiger rumors, who by the way actually played for Manchester United on Wednesday in a four-minute substitute appearance, and the Fire's offseason is promising to be active.