Nelson Rodriguez - Chicago Fire
Courtesy of Chicago Fire

Stejskal: Fire chasing two foreign center backs, talking with Kappelhof

CHICAGO – Almost four weeks after their last major addition, the Chicago Fire finally made a pair of new signings on Tuesday, inking Homegrown midfielder Jeremiah Gutjahr and using Targeted Allocation Money to land Polish international winger Przemyslaw Frankowski from Jagiellonia Bialystok.

The Fire view Gutjahr as a “very steady, very intelligent” piece, but there’s no doubt that Frankowski was the headline move on Tuesday. Chicago have been after the 23-year-old attacker for nearly a year, making a pair of offers – one last February, one last summer – that were rejected by Jagiellonia before they recently reached a deal.

Capped four times by Poland, Frankowski had 24 goals and 13 assists in four and a half seasons with Jagiellonia. The Fire see the pacey winger as someone who will stretch the field on the flank and add another dangerous option opposite winger Aleksandar Katai and behind striker Nemanja Nikolic.

“Besides having talent, he grinds, he has an incredible work rate and an incredible desire to get behind the defense,” Fire president and GM Nelson Rodriguez told reporters at the club’s jersey unveiling on Tuesday night. “He’s very, very good in transition both ways, and so we think he’s going to balance our squad, balance our work ethic, balance our attack.”

They’re bullish on Frankowski, but the Fire know they need a whole lot more if they’re going to rebound from their miserable 2018 this coming season. The club only have 20 players on the roster as they prepare to fly to Madrid on Wednesday for a two-week preseason camp. Only four of those 20 are defenders, though midfielders Nicolas Hasler and Raheem Edwards can both play outside back. Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic know they need to add several center backs and a new goalkeeper to potentially start ahead of Richard Sanchez, who struggled as the No. 1 in 2018.

“Without getting more competition in goal, without getting more competition and depth at center back, the offseason is not good,” said Rodriguez.

The clock is ticking. Rodriguez said he prefers to wait to sign the right player over rushing signings to “appease arbitrary deadlines,” but Paunovic admitted that not having several, presumably key pieces, for the start of camp comes with difficulties.

Chicago are working on a couple of things, of course. The club remain in contract talks with center back Johan Kappelhof, whose previous deal expired at the end of last season. Though sources told MLSsoccer.com earlier this month that the Fire included the Dutch defender in trade talks, both Rodriguez and Paunovic were hopeful that the 28-year-old would return to Chicago. Rodriguez also said that the club are negotiating with two other international center backs, both of whom would require transfer fees. If possible, Chicago would like to acquire all three center backs, though they feel that they’d be able to work effectively if they land two to join new signing Marcelo and Grant Lillard.  

Adding multiple center backs would also allow Chicago to move Designated Player Bastian Schweinsteiger back to central midfield. The German legend spent large portions of last season playing at center back due to a lack of depth in the position, and the Fire suffered for it. Not only did they lose Schweinsteiger’s quality in the midfield, but they struggled in the back, conceding 61 goals, third-worst in the East and 14 more than they allowed in 2017.

Paunovic, who said he believes the Fire already have a better roster than they did in 2018 despite the lack of additions this winter, indicated he’d play Schweinsteiger at center back again in 2019 if he had to, but both he and Rodriguez would clearly prefer the 34-year-old next to Dax McCarty in midfield.

“I think our team is at its best when he’s further forward,” said Rodriguez. “I think when he and Dax were in synchronicity, we showed what type of football we could play and that it could be effective football. So, that would be the preference. Having Basti is a luxury. You have a hole and Basti can fill it through his intelligence and through his superb technical ability, but our preference would be for him to play in the midfield.”

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