This past Monday the Chicago Fire announced which player options it had exercised and which player options it had declined in accordance with MLS’ league-wide deadline for those clubs no longer participating in the playoffs. In what is sure to be a busy offseason for the technical staff, the Fire began a third rebuild in the past four years by picking up seven options and declining the remaining seven, a high turnover rate even for a league where change is commonplace.
They chose to retain Brandt Bronico, Diego Campos, Stefan Cleveland, Elliot Collier, Jorge Corrales, Raheem Edwards and Nicolas Hasler, while declining the options on Jonathan Campbell, Drew Conner, Michael DeLeeuw, Daniel Johnson, Patrick McClain, Yura Movsisyan, and Luis Solignac. Additionally, the Fire announced that they are in dialogue with Bastian Schweinsteiger (who has already signed), Johan Kappelhof, Matt Polster, and Michael DeLeeuw about returning for the 2019 season despite being currently out of contract with the team.
The Fire are set to offer head coach Veljko Paunovic a multi-year contract extension in the coming days, a move which would mirror the consistency and time offered to Nelson Rodriguez as both the acting General Manager and President of the club.
While we normally provide match previews and post-match performance reviews, the offseason may be just as noteworthy as any matchday and necessitates review. A synopsis of each exercised option, declined option, and potential re-signing may provide some insight as to the direction of the team in the January market. The Fire are going to look a lot different when they line up for opening kick in March, hopefully it will be for the better. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Declined Options: Before delving into a discussion of the positives and negatives of each of these moves, it should be mentioned that there are real human beings on the end of these contract decisions. These players have dedicated their lives to their career, to their passion, and to the club while they wore its crest. None of the commentary presented here is meant to be a slight on the person who had their option declined, it is a mere evaluation of their ability to contribute to the roster in all its intricacies—cap space, justifiable salary, probable playing time, depth, need, etc. With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the departing players.
Jonathan Campbell (2018 Total Compensation: $128,300; GP: 15; Started: 11): Campbell arrived as a Super Draft pick in 2016, a day which saw the Fire wheel and deal their way through the first round. Acquired with the 12th overall pick, Campbell was an All American from Chapel Hill and was expected to go in the first round by many pundits. Although he made thirty-three appearances in his rookie season—partnering with Johan Kappelhof—the Fire finished bottom of the league for a second consecutive season. Since then, Campbell’s appearances have dropped each year as the technical staff had less and less confidence in the center back. An inability to play out of the back (an approach Paunovic has often stressed), a proneness to positional mistakes, and a lack of growth in his time with the club, means that this move makes a lot of sense. The bottom line is that the Fire have not been good enough defensively over the past three years and desperately need fresh blood across the entire back line. Campbell’s nearly $130k salary made the decision even easier. While he was popular among the fans this move makes sense in all aspects.
Drew Conner (2018 Total Compensation: $68,907; GP 11; Started: 5): Conner officially signed with the Fire as a Home Grown player prior to the 2016 season, and although he failed to feature at all in his rookie year, the Chicago native was an integral part of the 2017 campaign. Featuring in twenty-one matches that season—mostly in a substitute’s role—Conner was able to fulfill whatever tactical need was asked of him. His versatility saw him utilized at right back, right wing, central midfield, and even left back throughout a campaign in which the Fire made the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. His production rate and appearance count dropped this past season (he logged half as many minutes as the season prior) but showed himself to be a serviceable squad player. With his low cap hit, ability to play multiple positions, hometown ethos, relationship with the fans, and an overall love of the club, this decision was a head scratcher. His work rate alone will earn him chances at other MLS clubs and an equivalent rotation player will be hard to find. This was an unnecessary move.
Michael DeLeeuw (2018 Total Compensation $589,212; GP 9; Started: 5): On paper this was perhaps one of the most shocking decisions the technical staff could have made. However, the devil is in the details with this move and it is important to note that the Fire were quick to declare that they are in ongoing discussions with the attacking stalwart for a renewed contract. DeLeeuw arrived in Chicago in the middle of the 2016 season from FC Groningen where he played with Johan Kappelhof (winning the KNVB Cup in 2015). He hit the ground running in his role as a secondary striker and attacking midfielder by scoring seven goals and notching three assists in just seventeen starts and followed up his impressive debut campaign with three goals and eight assists in 2017. Although he played second fiddle to Nemanja Nikolic in terms of goal scoring that year, DeLeeuw’s ability on the ball, calculated movement off of it, and a typical Dutch precision in passing earned him continued praise. A horrendous ACL rupture in September of that season ended his hopes of featuring in the playoffs and led to a nearly eleven-month recovery period which did not see him feature until August of 2018.
That surgery/absence coupled with his TAM level contract status and the fact that he will turn thirty-three in the upcoming season justify the declining of his option. For those same reasons, it is virtually impossible that he will be selected in the first round of the Re-Entry Draft while his appreciation for the city and dedication to the project should close off negotiations with other clubs in the second round. If the Fire can get him back for around $200-300k, this decision will make a lot of sense.
Daniel Johnson (2018 Total Compensation $68,254; GP 7; Started 3): Johnson came to the Fire in 2017 by way of the Super Draft, selected eleventh overall with Chicago’s highest pick in the first round. Although Johnson spent time playing for the University of Louisville, the winger/attacking midfielder had much higher aspirations in his youth. Johnson spent nearly four years in the West Ham youth academy before the Premier League side offered him a contract with their U-18 side and a promise to be integrated into the first team in the future. However, a FIFA commission denied the move and Johnson returned to the States for college. Technically gifted, quick, and able to play on either wing or centrally, Johnson has a unique skill set. However, his size (just 5’9” and 140lbs.), inability to impress the technical staff in his rare outings across two seasons, and the Fire’s dedication to revamping the squad mean that this was probably the correct move.
Patrick McLain (2018 Total Compensation $67.500; GP 5; Started 5): Goalkeeper has been a contentious subject for Chicago in recent years and it certainly didn’t get any clearer in 2018. The fact of the matter is that no one has been good enough in that position since the current technical staff’s arrival and McLain was just the odd man out in the offseason. This was McLain’s second stint with the Fire after Chicago initially acquired the keeper in 2016 from USL’s Sacramento Republic FC before trading him to Minnesota in 2017 and reacquiring him in 2018. Breaking into the first team in May for five matches ended in devastation for McLain when a hamstring injury cost him his starting spot. He was forced to watch from the sideline for nearly three months, returning just before the final match of the season. Having made just eight MLS appearances in five seasons spread across seven years, the writing was on the wall for McLain long before the Fire started pursuing other options. This move makes a lot of sense.
Yura Movsisyan (2018 Total Compensation $2,073,750; GP 4; Started 0): Movsisyan’s acquisition in September came out of the blue and the structure of his deal is even more of a mystery. Yura won MLS Cup with RSL in 2009 before heading off on a lengthy spell in Europe which included time in Denmark and Russia, most notably with giants Spartak Moscow, before returning to the club that put him on the map. An inability to fit in with Petke’s vision for RSL led to a failed loan spell in Sweden with Djurgardens and he was claimed off of waivers by Chicago later that year. It is completely unsurprising that he will not be back.
Luis Solignac (2018 Total Compensation $353,312; GP 11; Started 8): This was Solignac’s third year with the Fire after being acquired from Colorado. Like many of the remaining non-DP or non-TAM players that have been a part of the current technical staff’s three-year process, the Argentine’s time was up with the club. A ludicrous salary—especially when compared to his production (just nine goals and five assists in fifty-seven appearances with the club), an increasing proneness to injury, and an overall failure to live up to the potential of someone who spent time with Braga and Banfield all signaled the end for Solignac. He may have one last go at MLS for a significant pay cut or he might return to his native Argentina, but this was certainly the correct decision for Chicago.
Exercised Options: The necessity for consistency has been stressed by this technical staff throughout their tenure at the club and they have followed up on that commitment by exercising the following options. Again, the judgements made here are not indicative of a player’s personal value but reflect an analysis of the roster itself. Let’s take a look at who will be around in 2019.
Brandt Bronico (2018 Total Compensation $68,254; GP 23; Started 17): Bronico arrived in Chicago in 2017 after being selected in the third round of the Super Draft and featured four times in his rookie season. He spent the remainder of that year logging minutes for Chicago’s USL affiliate, Tulsa Roughnecks. This past season however saw the midfielder start in half of the season’s matches and play an important role partnering Dax McCarty in midfield. While he certainly isn’t an MLS caliber starter, his versatility, work ethic, and dedication to the team are admirable. When you add his low salary and his relationship with the fans, this was certainly a smart move if it is coupled with other midfield improvements.
Diego Campos (2018 Total Compensation $54,500; GP 23; Started 13): The Costa Rican found his way to the Fire this past season via the second round of the Super Draft. Initially an unknown quantity, the technical staff did their scouting work on this gem. Creativity, dead-ball delivery, vision, and passing ability highlight his attributes, while a low salary cap hit and the ability to play both centrally and, on the flank, sweeten the deal. The only downside of this move is that Campos takes up an international slot, a tag that might be better suited for someone that is an ever-present starter. If he is given the proper nurturing and tools for success, Campos could turn into a steadfast MLS player. This move makes a lot of sense.
Stefan Cleveland (2018 Total Compensation $55,654; GP 5; Started 5): As was mentioned above, goalkeeper is certainly the biggest position of need for Chicago in this offseason and Cleveland added adequate depth there in his second season with Chicago. Although he failed to feature in his rookie campaign after being drafted from Louisville, his sophomore MLS venture ended with five appearances in which he performed admirably. His shot stopping ability, quick reflexes, distribution, and demeanor make him a smart choice to serve as a back up to whoever the Fire bring in during the January window. Look for him to get a few Open Cup matches ahead of Richard Sanchez in the coming season.
Elliot Collier (2018 Total Compensation: $54,500; GP; Started 9): With Collier we get to our first head scratcher of this column. The 6’4” New Zealander spent his college days in the area, playing for Loyola, but currently occupies an international slot. Although sources indicate he has applied for his Green Card, that process has not been kind to the Fire in recent seasons. When you add the fact that the forward notched just one goal and one assist in nearly 1,000 logged minutes this season, this decision looks even bleaker. Often criticized for being slow, unable to read the speed of the game at a professional level, and having a poor first touch, Collier’s presence on the 2019 roster doesn’t add any confidence in some of the technical staff’s decisions. His low cap hit and the unfortunate truth that he is the only out and out backup for Nemanja Nikolic in the striker position are the only saving graces here. A move made out of necessity perhaps.
Jorge Corrales (2018 Total Compensation $67,500; GP 17; Started 15): Corrales was signed from USL affiliate Tulsa towards the end of the 2017 campaign (a distinct bright spot of that partnership) and although he did not feature that year, he became a frequent face in the 2018 lineup. The first Cuban player in Fire history is comfortable playing in either fullback position—although he prefers the left flank—and his minimal cap hit is a plus. He certainly wouldn’t be a starter anywhere else in MLS but the departures of Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster made this move inevitable. As of now, Corrales is the only true outside back on the roster, and although this will not be the case in January, the Fire could not afford to head into camp without one. Chalk this one up as necessary.
Raheem Edwards (2018 Total Compensation $55,654; GP 13; Started 10): This was probably the easiest decision that the technical staff had to make this year. Edwards arrived from Montreal in the 2018 summer window after Remi Garde decided to bring in his own wingers, but the Toronto native spent his first two MLS season’s with TFC after graduating from their academy. This is a successful move no matter how you look at it. Edwards can play as a winger or as an attacking fullback, has an MLS Cup under his belt, is just twenty-three, is barely noticeable in terms of cap hit, and was one of the only sources of explosive pace and energy for Chicago this season. Look for him to continue to contribute for years to come.
Nicolas Hasler (2018 Total Compensation $147,666; GP 10; Started 8): Another midseason acquisition, Hasler arrived from Toronto in exchange for Jon Bakero and $50k in GAM and although the move reminds onlookers of Chicago’s continued failure to develop young talent, it was overall a good one. Hasler is one of the most seasoned veterans in the squad, having spent most of his career in Switzerland, winning MLS Cup with Toronto last year, and being a staple fixture in the Lichtenstein national team—which he captains. Additionally, his ability to play multiple positions makes him even more valuable. Hasler lined up at right back, right wing, and defensive midfield for Chicago this season and he has played both striker and creative midfield for Lichtenstein in the UEFA Nations League this year. Who knows, perhaps he could be serviceable at goalkeeper as well? This is a solid move for Chicago.
Bastian Schweinsteiger (2018 Guaranteed Compensation $6,100,000; GP 31; Started 30): Schweinsteiger took some time to make a decision this offseason but announced on Wednesday that he will be returning for another season. He did the same last year while taking a European vacation before agreeing to another twelve months with Chicago at a salary increase of $700k. This time around the Fire did not label the discussion as a “mutual option” but talks progressed well with both Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez keen on the renewal. Schweinsteiger certainly seems to be enjoying his time in the city and he surely was not going to get $6m+ from any team in Europe at this point. This deal is done but whether it makes sense or not is an entirely different matter.
Positives include the prestige, professionalism, clout, marketing possibilities, and leadership that come along with him but if he is to spend another year at center back while occupying a DP slot and earning close to his 2018 salary, it might not be worth it. He did not take the $4.6m pay cut that would put him within TAM range, meaning that Chicago has all three Designated Player spots filled heading into the January Window (Katai and Nikolic are guaranteed for next season, although Nikolic has expressed some interest in returning to Europe in recent transfer windows). His renewal therefore means that any improvements to the squad have a ceiling of TAM level players, something that recent scouting has not shown itself capable of handling. A decision either way puts the Fire in a precarious position.
Ongoing Discussions: In addition to the aforementioned contract dialogue with Michael DeLeeuw the Fire’s Monday press release also alluded to the fact that the technical staff is keen on seeing Polster and Kappelhof return as well. Let’s take a look at those out of contract situations and the implications associated with each player.
Matt Polster (2018 Guaranteed Compensation $124,890; GP 3; Started 1): Of all of the players in this column, Polster’s situation is perhaps the most complicated. This past season the right back barley featured due to yet another knee injury that was followed up with surgery on his MCL. Skillful, committed, versatile, and on the USMNT radar when healthy, the twenty-five-year-old has been one of the bright spots on the roster since being drafted in 2015 from SIU-Edwardsville. Polster played an especially pivotal role in the Fire’s record 2017 unbeaten streak which saw them finish in third place of the Eastern Conference and had he remained healthy in 2018 Chicago’s fate certainly would have been different.
However, sources indicate that the Las Vegas native has ambitions which are set to take him beyond MLS as he travels to Europe for a series of trials among mid-tier leagues. Should these trials lead to a contract he certainly won’t be back, but should they not pan out, Polster does not qualify for free-agency, and his rights will be retained by Chicago due to an offer being extended to the player. The Fire would certainly be better off securing his services but it is out of their hands at this point.
Johan Kappelhof (2018 Guaranteed Compensation $595,000; GP 29; Started 29): From a soccer perspective, not retaining Kappelhof would be disastrous for Chicago. He has been the most consistent player on the team over the past three seasons, serving as a rock in central defense since arriving from FC Gronigen in 2016. The Ajax academy product missed just two league matches in his first two seasons with Chicago before a car accident sidelined him for a few weeks during the 2018 campaign. This is the type of stability that Nelson Rodriguez has alluded to needing throughout the roster. His positioning is impeccable, he is calm on the ball, has a ludicrously high passing percentage for an MLS center back, and has shown an ability to lead from the back despite being quiet off the pitch. Having said that, an inability to provide Kappelhof with a consistent center back partner, failures to secure pivotal pieces elsewhere on the field, and opportunities back home in Holland mean that convincing the twenty-eight-year-old to stay in Chicago will be difficult. The project that he was sold on has not panned out and most indicators point to him not renewing his deal with the Fire. If he does return, expect his TAM hit to increase significantly.
Work to Be Done: No matter what players, supporters, and pundits think of the roster decisions made by Chicago’s technical staff, the fact of the matter is that the Fire have a steep hill to climb as they enter the 2019 season. With just sixteen players currently on the roster, including the likes of Grant Lillard and Nicolas Del Grecco, who seem to be on the outside looking in, and youngster Djordje Mihailovic, said to be looking for overseas opportunities, Chicago will arguably need to sign at least ten or eleven players to round out the squad. When you add in the fact that most of those players will need to be of a starting caliber if the Fire are to avoid another subpar season, the burden is heavy indeed. Luckily, they have almost $3m of cap space to work with and an influx of resources from new stake holder Joe Mansueto are said to be on the way.