Chicago's defensive corps unexpectedly downsized

Josip Mikulic, Chicago Fire

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The Chicago Fire's defensive corps has suddenly and quite unexpectedly been downsized.

On Thursday, head coach Frank Klopas announced during a conference call with reporters that center back Josip Mikulic (pictured above) likely won’t be back with the team in 2012 due to family issues that will keep the defender in his native Croatia.

Mikulic, 25, signed with the Fire last offseason and played 14 league games with Chicago. He began the 2011 season as a starter, playing relatively well before injuries knocked him out of the lineup and relegated him to the bench. The Fire will continue to hold Mikulic’s MLS rights.

“Mikulic has a family situation,” Klopas said. “It’s been very difficult for him to come to the US with the family problems that he had. The only thing I can tell you is that Josip is not with us right now and most likely will not be with us starting the season.”

Klopas also said on Thursday that center back Yamith Cuesta is not in camp and may not be with the team in 2012. Cuesta was traded from Chivas USA to Chicago last winter and played in 20 games with the Fire, taking Mikulic’s starting spot after the Croatian defender got hurt. Klopas said that the Fire is trying to re-sign the 22-year-old defender, but that a loan agreement is complicating things.

As is the case with Mikulic, the Fire will hold Cuesta’s MLS rights if he does not return to the league.

“Cuesta is here on loan and we’re negotiating with him to get him here on a full-time contract,” Klopas said. “We have Cuesta’s rights, he’s trying to work out a situation where he can come free, and if that happens, we’ll sign Cuesta to a contract here.”

Mikulic’s likely departure and Cuesta’s uncertain status leaves the Fire with only three center backs on the roster in starters Cory Gibbs and Jalil Anibaba and rookie first-round SuperDraft pick Austin Berry. They’ll need to increase that number before the season starts.

“It‘s unfortunate because Josip was a last-minute thing,” Klopas said. “It’s not something we planned for, but it’s good that we worked hard and have a database of players in all positions and can call some in.”

One center back that Chicago holds the MLS rights to is Wilman Conde. The 29-year-old Colombian spent four seasons in Chicago, making two All-Star teams and the 2009 Best XI before departing for Mexican club Atlas after the 2010 season.

Conde announced earlier this winter that he wants to return to MLS. The Fire were shopping him around, getting into very advanced talks to ship his rights to New York. Mikulic’s and Cuesta’s situations may have softened the Fire’s desire to deal Conde though, as Klopas remained non-committal when asked if he’s interested in bringing the big defender back to Toyota Park. 

“Nothing has been finalized [with New York], so I couldn’t tell you anything new,” Klopas said.

“I can tell you that I’m happy where we are now with the group,” he added. “We obviously do have other options we’re looking at, but we’re happy with the group that we have and we’re moving forward with that.”