BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Aleksandar Katai wants to stay in Chicago. Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic wants to keep him around. Whether the Serbian midfielder will remain with the club after his loan from La Liga side Deportivo Alaves expires this weekend depends less on their mutual desire than on financials.
Katai joined Chicago in February on a loan deal that will expire on Sunday. He started the season somewhat slowly, but he’s come on strong over the past couple of months, recording four goals and three assists in his last seven regular season matches. He's tied for the team lead with six goals and is tied for third on the club with three assists in 16 league appearances this year.
The Fire have an option to purchase him outright and extend his MLS contract, but Paunovic said that they’re still trying to work out what a longer stay might look like. In addition to considering purchasing him outright, Chicago are exploring whether they can extend his loan through the end of the season.
Costs will come into play. According to the MLS Players’ Union, Katai is making $1.14 million in 2018, third on the Fire behind Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolic. A source told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday that Alaves are not contributing to Katai's salary and that Chicago used discretionary Targeted Allocation Money to buy that number underneath the maximum budget charge of $504,375. If the Fire acquire him permanently or extend his loan, they’d potentially have to pay Alaves a fee in addition to being on the hook for the remainder of Katai’s salary, which would affect their roster flexibility for the rest of the campaign.
“Definitely we would like to have him until the end of the season, for the rest of the season and we’ll see what’s going on after,” Paunovic told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “But of course it has to fit the economical and financial terms, also. I think it’s very important, the price of the player.”
Katai has been training all week and is eligible to play in Saturday’s home match against New York City FC. Despite the approaching deadline, the 27-year-old, whose contract with Alaves runs through the end of June 2019, said no one at the Fire has spoken with him about whether he’ll be sticking around.
“I haven’t even spoke with no one in the club,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “I really don’t know what’s happening. You’ll need to ask someone with the team.”
“I like the US, I like Chicago, I like of course the Chicago Fire and I want to stay here,” he added later.
Paunovic said that Chicago’s decision is about more than just Katai, whose wife has family in Chicago, something that’s eased their transition over the past few months. The Fire have been open about their desire to sign a No. 10, a center back and potentially another piece in the upcoming summer transfer window. Bringing Katai back would decrease the amount of money they’d be able to spend on those targets.
“We have our plan which we are working in on the background,” Paunovic said. “We will of course announce it because a lot of pieces have to come together. You have to know that it is not only about one player, it’s about the team. And we are aware of the contractual obligations we have and when that expires, so we are working. We are not going right now to announce anything until we see where we stand. We still believe we have time, a couple of days, but we are not ready to make it public.”
"I don’t know [what will happen]," said Katai. "I just say I’m so happy here and we will see what happens."