BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – For the past several offseasons, roster turnover for the Chicago Fire has been more about picking out what parts worked from a disappointing season. Now, after finishing third in the Eastern Conference, the Fire are in a slightly different position.
On Wednesday, when general manager Nelson Rodriguez addressed the media for the final time this year, there was a common theme to many of the questions: How much of this group, whether it’s head coach Veljko Paunovic or key starters, can they keep together?
“I think that’s a sign of a healthy club,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s a sign of what we want to build in our jobs is to make the Chicago Fire a club of choice, a club of preference. And just as we take great pride when our players are called into the national team … when teams come and ask for our players, that means – credit to the players always, always credit to the players – but it also means we’re doing something right and we’re contributing to their success.”
There were questions about all three of the Fire’s Designated Players, none of whom were on hand at the media session for varying reasons.
As for the one-year deal that brought Bastian Schweinsteiger to the Fire, reportedly a $4.5 million contract with a mutual option for next season, throughout 2017 both the player and the club said they wouldn’t talk about re-upping until the season ended. On Wednesday, Rodriguez said he would characterize their conversations as “going very well, very positively.”
“We remain optimistic that Basti and we will reach a mutually satisfactory agreement and that he will return,” said the Fire’s GM. “I won’t put a timeline on it. I think Basti has proven his importance to our club and to our team and that remains a priority to bring him back.”
At one point midseason, it appeared that David Accam might want out of Chicago despite having the best year of his time with the club. The Fire agreed to pick up his option for next season, which, coupled with a run to the playoffs, helped smooth things out and the Ghanaian finished with 14 goals and eight assists despite nursing an injury down the stretch.
Now, however, with the club in stronger bargaining position after picking up the option and Accam possibly still wanting to re-test the waters in Europe, he could possibly move on after three seasons in Chicago, though Rodriguez wasn’t committing either way. (Accam wasn’t at the media session to comment after undergoing bilateral sports hernia surgery on Tuesday.)
“I can’t speak to what David’s motivations will be,” Rodriguez said. “I want to recognize that David played through some injury toward the end of the year, which clearly hampered his play.
“I’ve said this in the past: No player is untouchable, in my mind. In my lifetime, Wayne Gretzky was one of the great athletes in all of sports and he got traded. So anything is possible, but David has proven to be an important part of the team and in our best moments David was central to that.”
Nemanja Nikolic’s contract situation is the most secure. But his MLS Golden Boot-winning 24 goals earned him an international call-up from Hungary and Rodriguez admitted that transfer offers will likely come for the striker, who has now won scoring titles in the last three leagues in which he’s played.
“We have him under contract for two more years, so that’s a good thing,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t say for certain but I would not be surprised if teams from around the world came [with offers]. It’s the hardest thing to do in soccer is find the back of the net and he continues to prove time and time again, no matter circumstance or place, he has that gift.”
Juninho started the season wearing the armband for the Fire and provided veteran bite in the midfield, but ended up only making 21 appearances after struggling with injuries down the stretch. The 28-year-old Brazilian had left knee surgery earlier in the offseason to treat a chronic issue, but the team said he is expected to be ready by training camp.
“Of course I expect to be back,” Juninho said. “It’s a club where I came and we changed a lot of things. We finished up in a good position this year. We brought good soccer back to Chicago and the confidence of the boys and all this matters. Of course I want to be back, but we have to still discuss about it.”
Another starting spot that seems to be in question is at goalkeeper. The Fire used three different starters during the 2017 season: Jorge Bava, who made eight starts to begin the year, Matt Lampson, who took over and was the No. 1 for most of the season making 25 starts, and Richard Sanchez, acquired late in the season and starter in two matches. While Lampson is the incumbent, it appears that the position is still an open competition, either through a new addition or one of those three taking hold of the No. 1 spot.
“When Rich came in, it pushed me to be a better goalkeeper and I think that’s what you need. You need that in every position, not just goalkeeping,” Lampson said. “It’s great to have competition, it’s great to be pushed every day and it’s great to have confidence that you’re the guy, but also know that you’re just a few games away from losing your job, so you need to perform every day and perform on the weekend.”
All of that uncertainty, along with injury keeping attacker Michael de Leeuw out for the next 6-8 months, could mean more than a handful of new faces in the Fire’s starting lineup when 2018 kicks off. While Rodriguez was mostly mum on any specifics, he didn’t deny that changes are looming.
“I think we know we need to improve along all the lines,” Rodriguez said. “Whether that’s in the projected 11 or in the projected 20.”