After strong season, where do Chicago Fire go from here?
In the words of Fire midfielder Dax McCarty, the team's playoff ouster Wednesday was "a really big bummer."
Now that the Fire's best season since 2012 is over, general manager Nelson Rodriguez and the soccer operations staff have a lot of decisions to make about the 2018 season. The Fire would like to avoid another abrupt playoff "bummer" next year, or worse, miss the playoffs again.
Don't be surprised if a third of the roster turns over. Here's what to look for this off-season:
It starts with Schweinsteiger:
Fire officials want Bastian Schweinsteiger, the 33-year-old German midfielder, back. With his age and injury history, however, can they afford to re-sign him for the same $5.4 million deal as 2017, by far the biggest on the team? Would he take a pay cut?
Schweinsteiger remains evasive about whether he'll return to Chicago for a second season.
"As Rodriguez said, we are in talks," Schweinsteiger said after Wednesday's 4-0 playoff loss to the Red Bulls. "We will see how it is. It is the same like with every player here."
Except he's not like every Fire player. He's a World Cup champion and one of the most famous athletes in the world.
Will David Accam be sold?
The speedy Ghanaian midfielder/forward had 14 goals and 8 assists in his third season here. The Fire has picked up the option for 2018, but he's free to go after next season and has been working toward a return to Europe.
If the Fire doesn't transfer or re-sign him (still a possibility), this winter, Accam could sign a precontract next summer and leave after 2018 and the Fire would get nothing for him. There's a good chance Accam has played his last game here.
Did Niko play his way out?
Forward Nemanja Nikolic led the league in scoring in his first year in Chicago. He's under contract through 2019, so the Fire is under no pressure to move him. But after scoring 24 goals, Nikolic might get some offers from foreign clubs that the Fire can't ignore.
Schweinsteiger, Accam and Nikolic fill the Fire's three designated player roster spots.
Who else could go?
Michael Harrington, David Arshakyan and Jorge Bava are the easy picks to leave town, having added little here. Central defender Joao Meira, out of contract, could move on.
Juninho's loan has expired and he never seemed to find his place here. He also missed significant time due to injury. With a salary over $700,000, the Fire would have to think twice before purchasing Juninho's contract or extending the loan.
John Goossens, who tore up his ankle in the season opener and missed the season, is more likely to return in an off-field role than as a player due to his extensive injury history.
All of those players have six-figure deals, freeing a lot of salary space for new talent.
Homegrown players Joey Calistri (Deerfield) and Collin Fernandez (Downers Grove) spent the season on loan to the Tulsa Roughnecks and weren't added to the 18 for the playoff game even when the Fire was short-handed. That indicates the Fire doesn't rate them highly, meaning they could be let go to make room on the roster for the next class of homegrown players (see below).
Midfielders Michael de Leeuw and 18-year-old Djordje Mihailovic will be back but probably won't play before July after suffering late-season ruptured ACLs. Their injuries will affect decisions on others.
Even if all of these players go, the Fire would return a good core of players: McCarty, Kappelhof, Nikolic, left back Brandon Vincent, right back Matt Polster, forward Luis Solignac, homegrown midfielder Drew Conner, veteran midfielder Arturo Alvarez and promising rookie Daniel Johnson.
"I think another year together will be good for us," McCarty said, noting the group needs time to jell. "Hopefully, we bring back a good core of this group, because there's a lot of talent here. There's a lot of good players. Maybe we need to go through a little bit of failure so we can come back stronger next year."
So who fills the roster spots?
For Rodriguez, coach Veljko Paunovic and Co., their primary goals this winter are to sign a first-rate goalkeeper and a playmaking midfielder. The 36-year-old Bava was a miss at goalkeeper, unable to organize the defense, mediocre at distributing the ball and not athletic enough to be a good shot stopper.
Teams also figured out the Fire didn't have a midfielder who could break them down when they bunkered defensively. Want an example? See the Fire's 0-0 draw against nine-man Orlando in June.
Rodriguez went after Colombian midfielder Juan Quintero during the summer transfer window but couldn't get a deal. They could try again with Quintero or look elsewhere.
Whether Accam leaves or not, the Fire also needs another winger or two. And they need a forward who can take more of the scoring burden off Nikolic, assuming the Fire isn't overwhelmed by an offer for the Hungarian international.
What homegrowns will sign?
The Fire could sign up to four players from its youth academy: central defender Grant Lillard (Hinsdale, Indiana University), central defender/defensive midfielder Mauricio Pineda (Bolingbrook, University of North Carolina), left back Andrew Gutman (Hinsdale, Indiana University) and central attacking midfielder Cam Lindley (University of North Carolina.
All four reportedly are having great college seasons.
The 6-foot-4 Lillard is a senior and most likely to join the Fire. Pineda, a sophomore, and Gutman, a junior, could choose to leave school early, and both seem ready to contribute as professionals. Either Lillard or Pineda might replace Meira as Johan Kappelhof's partner in central defense, competing against Jonathan Campbell and Christian Dean.
Many observers rate Lindley, a sophomore, as the best of the group, but the Fire doesn't necessarily share that view. Lindley was the only player of the four not to train with the Fire first team this summer, staying in North Carolina instead, so it's far from certain he will sign this winter with the Fire.