The name of the European based center back that Nelson Rodriguez referred to last week as one player that the club had reached an agreement with could be Portugese defender Joao Meira. Reports out of Portugal quote the 28 year old player as saying that he is happy to be joining a club on the rise in Chicago. He has spent the last three seasons with CF Os Belenenses.
During a media conference call this afternoon following the final day of the SuperDraft, Nelson Rodriguez didn't name players specifically but he did address continued negotiations with at least two other players at the center back position.
"There's more than one that we're chasing," said Rodriguez. "We continue to have discussions with multiple center backs based out of Europe. We have those prioritized and we know that we're competing in a global market. The fact that we continue to have discussions is encouraging, but until we get a signed contract, it's ongoing."
Meira seems to match the profile for the first "nearly signed" player and the Fire are still actively pursuing Marcin Kaminski. There is also another option at the position on top of Meira and draft pick Jonathan Campbell. "We're looking to have a total of three, plus with the addition of Johnathan and the impending return of Eric (Gehrig) from injury. We would then consider ourselves well stocked at that position for the season," said Rodriguez.
When asked if that additional player could be an experience veteran, like say Nemanja Vidic, who MLS is in discussions with, Rodriguez remained a bit evasive."We are looking for experience out of that position," he acknowledged. "We're looking for experience out of the people that we're bringing in out of that position because we see it as an important leadership role within the team on the field of play. The people that we have targeted are those that have a lot of games under their belt in top leagues and top competition."
The Fire appear to have interest in Vidic, but working him and Kaminski into the side from a budgetary sense may be difficult, even with the large stash of MLS funny money at their disposal.
Rodriguez doesn't seem to be in a hurry to rush along negotiations and get something done before camp opens next week. The closing of the European transfer window at the end of the month should help decisions along naturally. "There's a balance between patience and pressure. We are competing with the European transfer window, and so we understand that in certain instances players want to hold out and see what may come across the transom later in the window. We don't want to impose an artificial and unnecessary deadline. That said, we can't afford to allow all of our options to wither away while we wait for someone to make a decision. We juggle that balance on a daily basis. We juggle it with regard to all of the other plans that we have, and the other players that we're looking to secure. I believe that this would likely go into early February," he said.
The start of camp of January 25 won't necessarily determine who will be on the roster come opening day on March 6. "It's more important that we have them for the bulk of the season, in good form, and in good health, than have them for the first few days of preseason," said Rodriguez of the need to get players into training right from the start.
Rodriguez indicated that the Fire are prepared to pay transfer fees for players if the situation calls for it but not all of their targets at the moment will require a payment for immediate availability.
"The players we've targeted are out of contract in the summer. In some instances clubs are willing to let players go even now, for free. In other instances, they request or even demand a transfer fee to allow a player to go now. In other instances they won't accept a transfer fee and they want to hold the player through the end of his contract. We don't get to dictate those terms. We have to react to the terms expressed by the club that currently has the player under contract."
Allocation money gained via trades made last week could play a part in acquiring the two new center backs now.
"Part of the moves in SuperDraft day one, rounds one and two, were designed to give us greater flexibility from the monies we had already amassed so that we could try to change the terms of negotiations and change the tempo of negotiations for the current players that we're pursuing and also avail ourselves to more resources for a second list of players that we're looking at to help us in the central midfield roles," explained Rodriguez.
He continued to say that the club has a "not so short" list of internationally based players that could fill central midfield roles. They are also optimistic about completing negotiations with a couple of MLS veterans who are available now.
The Fire selected Creighton defender Vincent Keller and Butler midfielder Vincent Mitchell with the 57th and 62nd picks in today's final day of the MLS SuperDraft. "We like the name Vincent," joked Rodriguez. "After we made the selections I decided to look it up, and in Roman in means 'to conquer'. I like that even more. Vincent Keller and Vincent Mitchell are both versatile players. They can play multiple positions. Vincent Keller is very intelligent. Very competitive. We believe he could play center back or right back, although we likely view him more as a right back. That's in principle due to his size but he's got a highly competitive nature."
"Vincent Mitchell, we think can play along different spots in the attack. Very good pace. Very good nose for goal and ability to beat guys off the dribble. That's a dynamic that we think we needed to add to the team. Those players will be in heavy competition to make the final roster. Just being drafted is not enough, and it's not an automatic."
The competition for spots on the first team roster will likely come from recent Homegrown additions Drew Conner and Joey Calistri.
The players who don't earn first team spots with the Fire this summer seem destined to spend some time with USL partner Saint Louis FC. The final agreement to renew the association for 2016 hasn't been formally finalized but the Fire are set to begin a second season with Saint Louis serving as a port for young players. "We have had a lot of discussions with our affiliate (Saint Louis FC). We suspect that there are going to be players that we provide to them and they did such a great job last year with Alec Kann, Kingsley Bryce, and Patrick Doody, and we know they'll do a great job for us again this year. It's important that we did communicate and talk about what needs they may have in their roster, so that did play a part in how we drafted and who we drafted. Saint Louis has been very good in stressing to us that our needs fall number one and that they will work with us. At the same time, we want to make sure that we deliver value to the relationship as well," said Rodriguez.
Two members of their coaching staff will join the Fire in Tampa for preseason. Saint Louis FC coach Dale Schilly was also at the combine and provided input to the Fire technical staff.
Priorities for reinforcements
Center back and defense remain the first order of business over the next few weeks. Rodriguez reiterated the need for more experience in midfield although there are young players on the roster who will have opportunities to see plenty of time.
"If and when we close the center back spot, we want to address central midfield. We have some great in-house options. Harry Shipp, Matt Polster, Drew Conner, but those are very young players and we'd like to add a veteran presence in the center of midfield as well to help us. That's an area that we'll be looking at. We also have some young international players that we're spying quite closely, who we think have great potential and could fit in well with what we're doing. We're active along all four lines - goalkeeper, back, midfield, and forwards - but in terms of priority it would be center back, central midfield."
Are the Fire better?
It's hard to say without seeing what the final roster will look like in a a few weeks but Rodriguez believes they're already improved on the team that finished 2015 in last place.
"I believe that with our coaching staff, with the players we've added that we're already improved. I also believe that what we've added is more than just what these players bring on the field. It's the intangibles that we sense and the character of the people that we're bring in. I dare say that Brandon Vincent wanted to be with us. We had a great interview. I think he really liked our vision, and our values. I think it played into how he is as a man. All of our draft picks follow a similar trend line. Intelligence, versatility, winners from championship programs. It's not an accident. We even had a few players that we passed in the draft that came by and said - 'I kind of wish it had gone differently'. We believe that our vision and our values driven approach is resonating. The people who are with us are those that want to be here, and want to be a part of this project. I don't think that should be underestimated."
The look and style and play of the squad is also a work in progress and will continue to be so as things develop over camp and preseason.
"Coaching staff ideas right now are subject to change based on the performance of the athletes and based on how certain combinations may click or not. I want to reiterate that the process of building a team is not designed to coincide with the first day of training camp. It's designed to maximize our potential for the year and for the three year plan that we have in place. So that's not misconstrued, that doesn't mean that we're not seeking to be competitive in the first year, because we are. Our fans deserve that. The players that we have are competitors and want that for themselves but it is a process. We stay and try to remain focused on that process. Sometimes we get excited and a little impatient for ourselves because we see the potential for bigger gains more quickly but then we quickly try to step off that cloud and part our feet back on the ground and firmly look at where we are and where we need to get."