MLS All-Star game is a work in progress

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MLS All-Star game is a work in progress

The Major League Soccer All-Star Game has been a work in progress in the past, and that remains the case this year.

Fan balloting began Friday for the match pitting the MLS squad against UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea on July 25 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. MLS squad selection is a long, confusion process that started with media from around the league determining the top six players on each team.

For the Fire, that meant goalkeeper Sean Johnson, defender Gonzalo Segares, midfielders Sebastian Grazzini, Marco Pappa and Pavel Pardo and forward Dominic Oduro will be on the fans ballot.

Fans can vote through July 2, either through the MLS website or via text messaging or Twitter. Those votes will determine the designated All-Star First XI, with the players announced at the halftime of the Fires home match vs. the Los Angeles Galaxy on July 8.

That wont determine the whole team, though. Ex-Fire captain Peter Nowak, now the coach of the Philadelphia Union, is the coach of the MLS All-Stars this year. He will choose the game day roster and the starting lineup. MLS commissioner Don Garber will also have two picks for selection eligibility to be announced on July 25. The leagues players will also vote for their peers as part of the selection process.

In the end, 32 players will be designated as All-Stars, as per the leagues collective bargaining agreement with its players. Obviously, not all of them will be on the field against Chelsea. Of the Fire nominees, only Pappa has had a taste of All-Star activity. He was a starter in the 2010 match, a 5-2 loss to Manchester United in Houston.

MLS has tried a variety of formats for its version of All-Star weekend. In the leagues first two seasons, 1996 and 1997, teams were chosen by conference with the East meeting the West.

In 1998, when the Fire joined the league, the match pitted MLS players from the United States against those from the rest of the world. That was an interesting concept, but it didnt last long. It was back to East vs. West in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

The 2002 version pitted the MLS All-Stars against the U.S. national team, and just one MLS squad also participated the following year when the opponent was CD Guadalajara, the popular Mexican club known as Chivas.

After another try of East vs. West in 2004, the league opted for the present matchup of one MLS squad facing a notable international club Englands Fulham in 2005, Chelsea in 2006, Celtic FC of Scotland in 2007, Englands West Ham in 2008, Englands Everton in 2009 and Englands Manchester United in both 2010 and 2011.

The two matches with Man-U were the only matches the MLS squad lost during the seven-year run. The 4-2-1 mark compiled by the MLS squad in that period included a 1-0 victory over Chelsea before a sold-out crowd of 21,210 at Toyota Park in 2006. The game has been a sellout every year since 2005.

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.