The annual Fire Kickoff Luncheon is the final signal that the season is upon us. New York City FC will visit Toyota Park on Sunday at 1pm and the Fire are still looking to add players. MLS roster/budget compliance regulations take effect today but General Manager Nelson Rodriguez says the team is currently in good shape when it comes to available space with which to supplement the roster.
"We have no issues with roster compliance at all. As you all know, we've tried to be very patient in assembling a group moving forward," Rodriguez told media on Monday morning. "It's still not complete. We'll get there. We're satisfied with the progress that we're making with some of the players with whom we're negotiating currently around the globe. We hope to bring those to conclusion as soon as we can, but always with eye toward building something that's sustainable."
Even if agreements are reached this week with any of the international prospects, it is not likely that they'll be available for the opener due to the time necessary to complete the visa process. Rodriguez said that the club is still uncertain whether John Goossens will have his visa in time for the match this weekend. Goossens will add depth when he's available but a central midfielder and attacker are still on the shopping list. "We still think we need some help in there. John Goossens has proved to be a really good find for us, and he'll help. His versatility is really important to us. We think he can play any of the midfield spots. We also think he can play out on the wing for us, so that's comforting. I don't know that he'll have his visa in time for this weekend. We'll adjust if that's not the case, but we would like to add another midfielder and we still need some support front. We need to find some more goals," said Rodriguez.
Shaping the roster
When asked if the progress for completing the roster had met his offseason expectations, Rodriguez noted that was still work to be done before a full assessment could be made. "I don't know yet because we know that we're still looking for some pieces. Even after you acquire them it takes some time to see how it comes together. It's part science, but in large part it's also art. At the core of it all, and what we always strive for is the people. One of the things brings us a good degree of comfort so far is that we think that the group we have assembled has really meshed well in terms of its chemistry. Now again, we haven't been punched in the face yet. We haven't lost four games in a row yet. We haven't lost 4-0 yet. We haven't had the media criticize us yet. The real test of that character will come when we face genuine adversity, but for the moment we're very pleased at how the character of the group has come together," he replied.
"I think that Pauno's style and his demands are great. There's no substitute for time and experience in that setting and five weeks is plenty long enough for preseason in my mind but it's not the same as five months or five years. One thing that will benefit us I'm sure, is more time together. Keep in mind that every time you add or subtract a piece you stunt that timeline a little bit because you have an evolution and an adjustment that is always required. Broad based, I'd say we need more time together and we need more time when we incorporate parts. Looking at Sunday as a microcosm of where we are, I think we still need to do better in possession. I think we gave the ball away a little bit too easily. Our back line, which is still getting to know each other, will get better and I think we'll start to limit chances against us. We'd better before Sunday because there's a lot of firepower on New York City FC. Lastly, I still think there's still room for us to generate even more opportunities on the offensive side."
The Fire have had success in recent preseasons and that failed to translate into anything once the games started to count. Rodriguez takes some pride in the results so far but realizes that those wins are quickly forgotten.
"We're very satisfied with the progress. Winning is nice," he said. "It was especially nice Saturday night to end preseason with a championship and a good performance against the reigning MLS Cup Champions, but twenty-four hours later it meant nothing. This Sunday will be the real first test that the team faces. We still have to get better, but I'm satisfied with the progress that we've demonstrated that the team has the capability to continue to improve."
"Our expectations remain the same. What we strive for is improvement on a daily basis. Excellence, on a daily basis. If we can get the process right, we're comfortable that the results will come in the end. The team is not complete yet and it remains a work in progress. I think a lot of credit should go to the players for putting in a great deal of effort, and an intelligent effort in the preseason. It was nice to see them rewarded."
The Fire will need to get off to a good start with six of their first eight games this season played at Toyota Park. Rodriguez said the game isn't a must-win but it could set the tone for the season. "It's important. It's not crucial because we're going to lose a game over the course of the year. The way we look at it is fifty points is pretty much the barometer for playoffs, so we've broken the season down in bites. We'll approach the season that way. To win at home would be an energizing moment. We also recognize that NYC is desperate for similar reasons. Perhaps they feel disappointed in their performance and their results last year. It's two marquee teams in the league so it will be an interesting first game," he said.
Buying into the system
The style of play, and the effort required to maintain that style seems to have taken among the players this preseason. Coach Veljko Paunovic complimented them for the progress to date.
"We are very happy so far, with how the preseason went and how the guys did," said Paunovic. "They worked very hard during the preseason and they worked very well. Right now, I think they are not only trying to do what we are asking or demanding, they are doing that and they want to do it, and they believe. I think they've achieved that so far by the games that we've played in the preseason and how we've performed and how they feel that the system could work. Everything is on the players in the end. Obviously, we have to prepare them. We have to give them that support. We are there to serve them and at the same time guide them, and demand (from) them."
Adaptability was a main theme this winter when asked about how he wanted the team to play. Paunovic believes that the tactical switches made during the final game in Portland shows that the players are catching on.
"This is something that we announced as soon as I arrived here. The team was prepared. At least they were prepared from the standpoint of we are going to do that. When the moment came, they were ready. They wanted to accept and play the way that we asked. Slowly, but firmly, this team is starting to understand the advantages of playing like that. Having different styles and adaptability."
The Fire posted a clean sheet against the Timbers this past weekend but there presumed defensive starters haven't had much time to play together. Paunovic believes that cohesive will come with more minutes as a unit.
"This is a process. It takes time. The guys are new. Some are coming from not playing for six months, like (Joao) Meira. Kappelhof is another guy who's coming from playing the whole season. Adaptation, adjustment, that we have to have in order to get know each other, it takes time but I can tell you that these guys are doing one hundred percent the best they can do," he said.
Starting GK in question?
Matt Lampson started the last two Simple Invitational tournament matches leading to speculation that Sean Johnson may not start in goal on Sunday afternoon. Paunovic didn't do much to dispel that notion, offering some praise for the recently signed 'keeper while making sure to note that all jobs are open for competition. "(Lampson) did very well," said Paunovic. "They all have to work and earn it. This week and every week. Everyone has to earn his spot and we are working very good. We are very happy with that. We believe that is the approach that we have to have in order to have all our guys one hundred percent for every session and for every game."
When asked if he was ready to name a starting goalkeeper for the NYCFC match, he remained coy. "We are working on that. We have seven days to prepare for the game," he said.
Johnson told reporters that he had not discussed the starting spot with Paunovic yet, but was a bit surprised that he did not see more action after joining the team from USMNT camp. "Definitely expected to play more than I did. Playing 75 minutes in Portland, I would have liked to have played a little bit more but that's the coach's decision and not mine," he said.
It's possible that the Fire's current most tenured player could get the nod on Sunday but it appears Lampson will get serious consideration. There may not be international suitors on the table at the moment but Johnson reiterated his desire to play overseas when asked whether he's still keeping an eye on taking that step.
"For me, my ambitions are to play and to play as long as I can, and play at the highest level I can. This league has come a long way. I think if the opportunity still presented itself to play overseas, I'd have to weigh the options. The situation being the right place and the right time, I'm definitely not opposed to still going overseas," he said.
Johnson's last start came in a 3-2 win over Vancouver on February 21.
David Accam missed time due to illness last weekend and the coaching staff decided to protect him from potential turf-related injury in Portland, where he experienced some issues last season. Paunovic alluded to other ailments that require evaluation during training this week before committing him to availability for the opener.
"We have to see how feels (Tuesday). We're still not ready to say if he's going to be ready for the game," he said.
"He had some small muscular problems but we believe he is going to be fine soon, but we are not going to push him because he is very important for our team. We don't want him to feel under stress now when we are starting. When he's ready, he will be great for us."
- The current roster includes 22 signed players.
- Arturo Alvarez is expected to be officially added to that list soon.
- Kingsley Bryce and Vincent Keller have been waived. Alex Morrell remains in camp.
- Per Paunovic, no decisions have been made on possible USL loans.
- The coach's expectations right now - "We want to reach the playoffs this year, and that is what we're going to fight for. It's going to take a lot of time, process, and energy, as we've said but we have to have faith that we can do it."
- The Fire currently have 6 international spots taken (Kappelhof, Meira, Ramos, Goossens, Gilberto, Igboananike)
Current "signed" roster
GOALKEEPERS: Sean Johnson, Matt Lampson, Patrick McLain
DEFENDERS: Jonathan Campbell, Joey Calistri, Patrick Doody, Eric Gehrig, Michael Harrington, Johan Kappelhof, João Meira, Rodrigo Ramos, Brandon Vincent
MIDFIELDERS: David Accam, Razvan Cocis, Drew Conner, Collin Fernandez, John Goossens, Nick LaBrocca, Matt Polster, Michael Stephens
FORWARDS: Gilberto, Kennedy Igboananike