Fire training camp report


Fire training camp report

AVE MARIA, FL. So far, so good.

Five days into preseason training Fire coach Frank Klopas is pleased with what hes been seeing from a group of players that underwent little change from 2012.

"The changes we made were minimal, said Klopas, "and thats been good because we can get right down to work. Its been fun, and a lot of hard work from the guys.

In most previous seasons the Fire tweaked its roster with some foreign players. Not so this time. The main new acquisitions were off Major League Soccer rivals Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado), Joel Lindpere (New York) and Maicon Santos (D.C. United).

They werent consolation prizes. Klopas spent a month on the road in the offseason with stops in Spain, Holland, Belgium, Argentina and Costa Rica. Other staffers also went abroad in search of talent but felt players available via MLS were the best bet to improve a club that ended a two-year absence from the playoffs in 2012.

"We looked at guys, said Klopas. "Sometimes things dont work out, and sometimes you say I know what Im getting from guys in the league. We felt there was an opportunity to get proven guys in the league, and we took advantage of it.

Klopas has 33 players in camp at the small college town near Naples. Nineteen are rostered players. Ten are here as trialists and four were draft picks. Five are goalkeepers, with a spot open for a third netminder behind the rostered Sean Johnson and last seasons backup, Paolo Tornaghi.

Johnson is one of four players not in camp. Hes training with the U.S. national team in California in preparation for next weeks international friendly against Canada. Also absent are defender Arne Friedrich, who will join the team at the second phase of preseason training in Ventura, Calif., next month; Corben Bone, who is training with Spains Atletico Madrid; and Patrick Nyarko, who is expected here on Saturday after staying in Chicago to receive a CSN Award as the clubs top player of 2012 on Thursday night.

Klopas was also honored at the awards night, as a Fire Legend, but he was directing workouts here.

The lone uncertainty is the status of Alvaro Fernandez. A midfield starter on the left side the second half of 2012, Fernandez is apparently headed for the Qatari club Al Rayyan. A loan agreement hasnt been signed, however, and Fernandez is still technically a member of the Fire.

"Theres no update, said Klopas, "but it seems like hell be going somewhere else.

The trialists are headed by Rich Balchan, claimed off waivers after spending two seasons with the Columbus Crew; Rauwshan McKenzie, who has spent time with Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA since 2008; Luke Boden, a product of the Sheffield Wednesday system in England; and Colin Rolfe, a former University of Louisville teammate of Fire defender Austin Berry, the MLS Rookie-of-the-Year in 2012.

Also battling for a roster spot is Sam Archer, winner of the Fires open tryout in December and one of the last players cut by the Colorado Rapids in 2012.

Klopas has been conducting on-the-field workouts in the morning and fitness sessions either in the gym or running on the Naples beaches in the afternoon. That routine will be broken on Sunday when the Fire has a practice game with Florida Gulf Coast Universitys team.

Disappointed in 2016, Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez believes team has opportunity in offseason


Disappointed in 2016, Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez believes team has opportunity in offseason

The first full season for Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez and the first season for coach Veljko Paunovic did not yield notably better results than the year before.

A year ago, the Fire managed just 30 points, the lowest total in club history, and gave up a league-worst 58 goals.

Despite much change within the team and staff, the Fire managed 31 points this year and picked up one fewer win. The Fire scored one fewer goal than last season (42 vs. 43) and allowed the same number of goals.

Rodriguez, when speaking at the final of three Q&A sessions with local media on Tuesday, even remarked that “it’s incredible” how similar the two seasons were.

“When I first came here and I first took the job just over a year ago, I have to be honest, I never for one second saw a last place finish,” Rodriguez said. “I thought that progress would see more results and I thought it would be much easier to show tangible progress than what I think most people can look at this year.”

Still, Rodriguez spoke highly of the additions he and Paunovic made in the offseason, saying all of them “proved themselves as MLS players” to some degree. The Fire do have more younger players that appear to be viable long-term options than a year ago thanks to the emergence of rookie defenders Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent, for example.

But if the on-field results didn’t show the change, where is it?

“I think one big thing that has changed over the course of our eight or nine months with the group is we learned how to compete,” Rodriguez said. “What we didn’t learn was how to win. We had many self-inflicted wounds throughout the year. We unfortunately seemed to repeat some mistakes, some of that can be attributed to youth, some of that can be attributed to lack of cohesion that only comes by being together over time.”

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Many of the players had exit physicals on Tuesday at Toyota Park, although some are already out of town, marking the official start of the offseason. As the offseason begins, the Fire enter rebuilding yet again. The Fire have now missed the playoffs in four straight seasons and six of the past seven.

Rodriguez believes moves made in 2016 have better positioned the club for this coming offseason.

“I know that we’re in a better position on the team’s salary budget than we’ve been in the past,” Rodriguez said. “I know that we’ve assembled a group of very hungry players that are either entering their prime or in their prime. We have two first-round picks. We have two DP slots. We have allocation money. So we’ve set the stage.”

There will be change within the Fire this offseason, but Rodriguez wouldn’t detail if it will be similar to last offseason when just 10 players from 2015 were retained, and two of those were shipped off midseason, or if it would be a more moderate rebuild. Rodriguez said that eight players currently have guaranteed contracts heading into 2017: defenders Johan Kappelhof, Michael Harrington and Joao Meira, midfielders John Goossens and Collin Fernandez and forwards Michael de Leeuw, David Accam and David Arshakyan. Meira’s contract initially had a club option for 2017, but met a clause that guaranteed the contract for next year.

The first date to know for this offseason is Dec. 13, when the expansion draft for Minnesota and Atlanta will take place. Before then, the Fire will have to announce which contract options they will pick up and which they will decline as well as which players they will protect for the expansion draft. After that, most of the moves will likely happen in January, when the international transfer window opens and when the MLS SuperDraft takes place.

“I know already that the first expectation is January and what will happen in January and everyone is pointing to January,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll just repeat it again, for me it’s about getting it right, not getting it fast. It’s about assembling a team that we believe can build and yield a championship program, one that’s sustainable. Today, is the first official day that we’ve begun work on 2017 although we laid groundwork and have been eyeing for this.”

Fire’s younger players a mixed bag in 2016


Fire’s younger players a mixed bag in 2016

When Joey Calistri subbed on for Arturo Alvarez in the 81st minute of the Chicago Fire's 3-2 loss at Toronto on Sunday it was the first time the rookie homegrown player had seen the field in over a month.

The nine-minute appearance was also more time than he'd seen in a league game in July, August, September and October combined. Calistri played 10 of the Fire's first 13 league matches totaling 333 minutes. In the final 21 matches of the year he made four appearances totaling 15 minutes.

Because Calistri's substitution was the third and final sub for the Fire, it also signified that fellow homegrown players Patrick Doody and Drew Conner would not play in 2016. Both made the list of available substitutes in Toronto, but did not get the call to sub into the match.

This offseason the Fire got younger with first-round draft picks Brandon Vincent (22 years old) and Jonathan Campbell (23), second-rounder Alex Morrell (22), homegrowns Calistri and Conner (both 22) and international players Rodrigo Ramos (21), Khaly Thiam (22) and David Arshakyan (22) joining the team. Some of the players like Vincent and Campbell were major contributors in 2016 and could be a significant part of the team in the future. Meanwhile, the Fire's four homegrown players, 19-year-old second-year pro Collin Fernandez in addition to Calistri, Conner and Doody, combined for two starts. Fernandez made two substitute appearances for a total of eight minutes.

Campbell played in 33 of the Fire’s 34 matches, starting 30 of them at center back, and was in the early running for Rookie of the Year before Jordan Morris, Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Harrison solidfied themselves as the top three in that race. Vincent finished with 24 starts and 26 appearances at left back and was named to the MLS All-Star team. Those two, along with Johan Kappelhof, could potentially form the core of the team’s defense next year.

Another young defender, Ramos, showed flashes of being a dangerous attacking right back and made 16 starts. However, the Brazilian seemed to fall out of favor with Paunovic in the final two months of the season and the Fire will have to pick up the option on his loan to make him a permanent member of the team.

A pair of younger international players, Arshakyan and Thiam, saw semi-regular playing time down the stretch after joining during the season, but neither made a big impression. Thiam, like Ramos, joined on loan so his future remains up in the air. Arshakyan joined the team in August and both Arshakyan and Paunovic have said he is still settling in.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez has talked about trying to form a core of players to build around for years to come. Campbell and Vincent showed the potential to be valuable parts of such a core, but for many of the Fire's younger players, 2016 was a season of missed, or a lack of, opportunities.