New additions have Chicago Fire feeling hopeful heading into 2018 opener

Veljko Paunovic - Chicago Fire - close-up profile shot

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Although the Chicago Fire endured a frustrating offseason in terms of player acquisitions, a late flurry of signings has given the team an added boost heading into their season opener vs. Sporting Kansas City on Saturday (6 pm ET, MLS LIVE).

The addition of midfielderTony Tchani from the Vancouver Whitecaps last week in exchange for $150,000 in Targeted Allocation Money has bolstered head coach Veljko Paunovic’s midfield options. And together with the earlier signing of Serbian international Aleksandar Katai from Spain’s Deportivo Alaves and the additions of forward duoDiego Campos and Elliot Collier, the Fire’s roster looks significantly healthier and deeper than it did just a week ago.

The moves took the roster to 25 players, although with short-term injuries to Jonathan Campbell, Luis Solignac, Richard Sanchez and Daniel Johnson, and long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic, the team’s strength in depth is sure to be tested in the early weeks of the new season.

And with both Paunovic and president/general manager Nelson Rodriguez admitting the squad is “incomplete” with “missing pieces on and off the field”, there could be more signings to come in the weeks ahead. Perhaps Lee Nguyen? Or another potential No. 10 which the Fire has coveted since the arrival of Rodriguez and Paunovic in 2015?

Katai — who scored 21 goals in a standout 2015/16 season with Red Star Belgrade, which earned him a move to La Liga — is expected to fill the void left by fan favorite David Accam. And while he is a different type of attacking option, the Fire staff have liked what they have seen thus far.   

“He’s just a proper footballer,” midfielder Dax McCarty told reporters. “He’s got a soccer brain. You can already tell from four or five days training with the guy. Right away, at least for me because I’m not super athletic, I always try to look for guys who think about the game before they step on the field and before they get running. You can tell in little passing exercises, little possession drills, he’s really clean on the ball. I don’t think you go play in La Liga if you’re not a really good player. I like what I’ve seen so far from him. I think he’s going to be a huge piece for us, for sure.”

With one eye on a place on Serbia’s squad for this summer’s World Cup, Katai jumped at the chance to link up with compatriot Paunovic after struggling to find minutes with Alaves.

“In Alaves this year I played zero minutes and it’s very bad for one player,” Katai said. “I need to find a solution. When I heard that Veljko called me here to Chicago, I don’t hear nothing to wait, I accept immediately.”

Asked what the Fire fans can expect in terms of style of play, the 27-year-old was giving nothing away.

“You will see,” Katai joked. “I don’t want to talk here about my quality or something else. I will show everything what I can on the field.”

Since the Fire have not yet brought in a new No. 10, MAC Hermann Trophy winner Jon Bakero may also see some more time than expected in his rookie season. The 21-year-old native of Spain, who was selected No. 5 overall in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft out of Wake Forest, has been deployed across the frontline in preseason, and could start on the right or left of a front three which should also include reigning MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic in the center and Katai on the other flank.    

“We try to push our rookies to the next level, which is the pro level,” Paunovic said. “And that’s understanding in every opportunity he has, he has to convert it, he has to give something to the team. We are happy with his progression, but still we are looking for him to reach that next level which is required for our team.”