The Fire do have a bit of extra time to get signings over the line before they start their season, as they won’t open the 2018 campaign until Week 2 on March 10 against Sporting KC, one week after most other MLS teams kick off. The extra seven days give Chicago a bit of leeway, but they don’t change the fact that the Fire feel that the roster isn’t yet whole.
“The roster’s incomplete, as it has been,” Rodriguez said. “We’re still looking to improve across all the lines, we’re still involved in conversations both inside and outside the league. Can’t say that anything is imminent, but we’ll keep working until we get the group assembled that we think will be the best one to give us a chance at a championship.”
Several injuries have left Chicago particularly thin in a few areas, including at attacking midfield. The Fire will be without midfielders Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic for several months due to ACL tears suffered late last year and traded star winger David Accam to Philadelphia at the SuperDraft in January.
Chicago signed Serbian attacker Aleksandar Katai on loan from La Liga club Alaves to replace Accam, but they could end up starting a rookie midfielder on opening day – either attacker Jon Bakero or holder Mo Adams, who could slot in if Bastian Schweinsteiger moves into a higher role – if they don’t soon move for a No. 10.
Rodriguez didn’t name any of Chicago’s targets, but sources confirmed to MLSsoccer.com that the Fire remain interested in New England Revolution midfielder Lee Nguyen. Nguyen asked New England for a trade earlier this offseason and held out of the start of training camp before re-joining the Revs earlier this month. New England have said that they won’t trade Nguyen.
“We’re still looking for a No. 10, and suggestions are welcome,” Rodriguez joked. “We’ve run through a long pipeline of players that we’ve looked at and considered, and for whatever reasons those didn’t come through. So, we rebuild our pipeline and keep looking internally and externally.”
Chicago are also a bit under it – at least for the short-term – at goalkeeper and center back. Starting backstop Richard Sanchez's status for the opener is up in the air due to a left elbow injury, leaving the Fire with Stefan Cleveland as the only healthy goalkeeper on their roster. Veteran backup Patrick McLain is also in Chicago’s camp as a trialist.
Center back is also a position of concern, with Jonathan Campbell out for the next 6-8 weeks after he suffered a facial fracture Saturday and rookie Homegrown Grant Lillard sidelined for a couple more weeks due to an LCL injury. Johan Kappelhof and Christian Dean are the only healthy center backs currently on the roster, though Schweinsteiger and left back Brandon Vincent can play the position in a pinch.
“It heightens urgency,” Rodriguez said of the injuries. “As [head coach Veljko Paunovic] mentioned, it forces us to try to be more resourceful and innovative. There’s a tricky balance there because we have short-term needs.”
Chicago’s slow offseason has been a huge change of pace for Fire fans, who saw their club completely overhaul the roster following their last-place finish in 2016 to set the table for a third-place finish in the Supporters’ Shield standings last year. Rodriguez acknowledged that shift might be causing some anxiety, but he remained steadfast in his belief that Chicago have taken the right approach this winter.
“It’s frustrating for fans that we haven’t had as many acquisitions as other team,s but I’m pleased that we’ve remained disciplined in our process and our evaluation,” he said. “We’re willing to walk away from some talent because I don’t think the values match, but we’re willing to stick to our valuations of what players should cost. It’s not to be evasive on the timing, but it is to say when all those factors are right we’ll add players.”