Chicago Fire's center back situation in state of flux
When the Fire picked Louisville's Austin Berry in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft two weeks ago, it seemed the club had a surplus at center back.
Now center back is a position of need.
Fire coach Frank Klopas said Thursday during a teleconference from the club's Florida preseason training center that reserves Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta are not in camp and probably won't be back in Chicago this season.
Mikulic, a Croatian, had a family situation develop very recently that made it "very difficult for him to be this far away from his family, and we understand that," Klopas said.
The decision to pick Berry looks especially good after Mikulic's personal issues cropped up.
"This was not something we knew," Klopas said. "Austin was a solid center back, and more than anything it's an important position."
In the case of Cuesta, a Colombian, his loan agreement with MLS expired, and it seems unlikely a new loan agreement or transfer can be worked out.
The Fire will continue to hold the MLS rights to both players, just as it holds the MLS rights to former Fire central defender Wilman Conde, who spent last season with Atlas in Mexico but now reportedly is seeking a return to MLS. The Fire has been working to trade Conde's MLS rights to the New York Red Bulls, where Conde would replace Tim Ream. Ream just transferred to Bolton in England.
Joining Berry in camp at center back are returning starters Jalil Anibaba and Cory Gibbs.
Also missing I:
Newly signed Colombian midfielder Rafael Robayo also is not yet in camp, but that's due to normal visa issues. He's expected soon.
Also missing II:
Starting goalkeeper Sean Johnson just concluded camp with the U.S. national team and played the second half of Wednesday's 1-0 victory at Panama.
Johnson, who trained for a couple of weeks at Everton in England in December, hasn't had much of an off-season break, but Klopas said he's going to get some time off. Instead of joining his teammates in Florida, Johnson will connect with the club when it moves to Ventura, Calif., for training Feb. 8-18, what Klopas called the "second phase" of preseason training.
Johnson could have a busy summer. He's expected to be a part of the U.S. Olympic qualifying team that hopes to go to London in July for the Olympics.
Klopas didn't seem interested in talking about persistent rumors midfielder Marco Pappa might be transferred to FC Twente in the Netherlands.
"Marco Pappa's in camp here and that's all I can tell you," he said.
The Guatemalan made it to camp Monday after getting his visa. He told chicago-fire.com he's looking forward to his fifth season with the club.
"It's a new year and I know everyone is looking forward to the season," Pappa said. "I'm looking forward to the team making big strides throughout our preseason camp and we're looking to be in good shape when we start the season in March."
The Fire this week waived midfielder/defender Mike Banner, who did not play last season due to injuries.
Kheli Dube, a forward picked by the Fire in December's Stage 2 re-entry draft, signed earlier this week and is in camp.
The Fire has 36 players in camp, including trialists and draft picks, and can keep no more than 30.
"We have limited spots and we're going to have to make some tough decisions, but that's what it's all about," Klopas said.
Let the games begin:
The Fire plays its first exhibition game of the preseason Sunday when it meets D.C. United at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Klopas said he plans to divide the players into three groups that will play 30 minutes apiece.
"We have big numbers here in camp right now, so the first preseason game more than anything we'd like to get 30 minutes from the groups we'll be using," he said.
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