Larentowicz thrilled to kick off season with Fire

989531.png

Larentowicz thrilled to kick off season with Fire

AVE MARIA, FL. It will just be an informal match against a college team, but for Jeff Larentowicz, the Fires first preseason meeting with Florida Gulf Coast University on Sunday marks a new beginning.

Larentowicz was the Fires biggest offseason acquisition. He came from the Colorado Rapids for the Fires first-round pick (11th overall) in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft.

"To leave Colorado was tough, but to end up here... I couldnt have asked for more," Larentowicz said after a snappy morning workout on Saturday on the campus of Ave Maria University. "Ive been around the league a bit, but this group is fun to be around and the coaches keep things intense, but still short and to the point. Thats what everyone wants at this time of year."

Larentowicz will play a major role in a midfield that is being tweaked by coach Frank Klopas. Theres plenty of competition for jobs in that part of the lineup, but theres one less candidate after Alvaro Fernandezs move to Qatori club Al Rayyan was finally confirmed.

Fernandez, a late-season acquisition from Seattle in 2012, was the starter on the left side. Larentowicz will probably wind up in the middle.

"Jeffs a leader on and off the field, and one of the most accurate passers in the league," said Klopas. "He brings a lot of physical presence to the midfield and hes been a very consistent player for five-six years."

Larentowicz is one of the rare fourth-round draft picks to earn long-term playing time in MLS. The New England Revolution claimed him with the 45th overall pick in 2005, and he has some interesting ties to the Fire.

One of his teammates and best friends in high school at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia was Dan Gargan, the defender who played for the Fire the last two seasons but was lost to San Jose in the last re-entry draft.

Larentowicz has also been a long-time teammate of Wells Thompson, another Fire midfield candidate. Thompson was acquired late last season. He played with Larentowicz for three seasons in New England and three in Colorado. In fact, Larentowicz and Thompson moved from the Revs to the Rapids together, in a trade that sent defender Cory Gibbs to New England.

Gibbs was a Fire mainstay until suffering a knee injury last year. He retired after the campaign ended.

So now, Larentowicz, Maicon Santos and Joel Lindpere are being counted on to improve the Fire. All came from other MLS teams rather than being the more traditional additions from foreign clubs.

"That is highly unusual," said Larentowicz. "When teams sign players in the offseason, its easier to transfer players in than transfer from within the league. The logistics are easier that way, but its important to get people in who know the league."

The Fire has its second and last preseason match of the first phase of preseason training on Wednesday against the Columbus Crew in Bradenton, FL.

Fire Talk Podcast: GM Nelson Rodriguez on the state of the club

fire-pod-523.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire Talk Podcast: GM Nelson Rodriguez on the state of the club

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez talked with reporters for an hour at Toyota Park on Tuesday. Listen to the hour long Q&A session in this episode of the Fire Talk Podcast.

He spoke about the team's improvement, what moves could be made in the summer and other wide-ranging topics about the team and the league.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

It’s amazing the difference a year has made for the Chicago Fire.

At this time last year the Fire were coming off having the worst record in Major League Soccer and looked headed to another year at the bottom. The team’s attack was toothless when David Accam was injured and any early optimism in the first year for general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic waned.

In the first of three organized meetings with reporters last year, Rodriguez admitted the team’s record wasn’t good enough and preached patience. Things didn’t get much better for the Fire, which finished last for the second year in a row.

This offseason, Rodriguez made a number of big moves and the early returns are positive on most of them. Dax McCarty has vastly improved the team’s midfield and possession play, with goalkeeper Matt Lampson calling him the team’s MVP after practice on Tuesday. Nemanja Nikolic leads the league in goals, something unthinkable in the first half of last year when the Fire struggled to get one or two shots on target, let alone goals, during a match. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the big name player fans have been waiting years for and he has delivered on the $5.4 million price tag.

When Rodriguez fielded questions from reporters for an hour on Tuesday, the Fire had the third most points in Major League Soccer. He could have referenced the patience he called for a year ago and boasted about the vindication. Instead, he said, as coach Veljko Paunovic did in the past week, that the team still hasn’t accomplished anything.

“For sure I sleep a little better,” Rodriguez said. “For sure you can’t wait for the next game even sooner, especially when you’re on a good patch I think. There’s so much ground yet to cover. This is a very difficult league to prognosticate and predict, even from week-to-week.

“I think it’s my job to try to see through the results, again continue to measure our process and how we’re progressing against that process to try to make sure that we don’t have any blind spots to ourselves and what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. To push the group to constantly self-reflect and improve.”

[MORE FIRE: Tough tests in next two months should show a lot about Fire]

Rodriguez also said the Fire’s positive start hasn’t changed his expectations for this season either.

“We have to be a little bit modest, given that we as a club have struggled for so many years,” he said. “The first bar, and it’s a low bar, but it’s the playoffs.

“Our expectations were to make the playoffs. Our expectations were to contend or win the Open Cup championship and those continue to hold.”

He did admit that “skepticism is understandable” from fans who have seen the team struggle for several years. Schweinsteiger’s arrival and the team’s improved record have created what he described as a momentum, and not just on the field.

“There’s certainly a buzz,” Rodriguez said. “There’s also still that small, but loud group of wallowers who are just hoping that the wheels come off or still want different players than the ones we acquired. That will still be there, perhaps until we win a championship. Overall, I think there is an excitement that’s building.”

This is the high point of Rodriguez's still-young tenure with the club. The Fire feature a World Cup winner, have one of the best records in the league and there’s a buzz around the team. What a difference a year makes, indeed.