Exactly one month since the Chicago Fire played its final match of the 2016 season, GM Nelson Rodríguez on Wednesday provided the first glimpse of how the 2017 roster will shape up.
Working in partnership with Veljko Paunovic and his staff, Rodríguez announced the nine players -- a mix of league veterans and young-but-proven talent -- whose 2017 contract options had been picked up by the club. Coupled with the eight guaranteed contracts for next season, the group brings Chicago’s current roster count to 17, though Rodríguez has not yet closed the book on possible returns for any of the nine players whose options were not exercised.
“We are confident about our roster as it stands and remain in active discussions with several players whose futures are not yet decided. We remain in pursuit of some international targets as well,” said Rodríguez, who specifically cited forward Luis Solignac, midfielder Khaly Thiam and defender Rodrigo Ramos as players with whom contract negotiations remain open. “As it stands, we’re pleased to be bringing back a group of players who we believe are hungry to play for our club and represent Chicago.”
Notable in Wednesday’s announcement is the retention of goalkeepers Sean Johnson and Matt Lampson, as well as the return of veteran midfielder Arturo Alvarez on the heels of a career year that saw the 31-year-old -- who arrived into preseason camp as a trialist -- tally five goals and nine assists from his spot on the attacking wing.
There also remains a corps of young building blocks in the back half of the field, as Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent return after promising rookie campaigns. With Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira already under contract for 2017, Paunovic is poised to return what was consistently his starting back line, but could still add pieces to a unit that conceded too often for its liking in the second half of 2016.
Matt Polster is set for a third season in central midfield for the Men In Red, while the club’s current crop of four Homegrown players also remains intact. The Fire exercised contract options for Joey Calistri -- who appeared 14 times in his rookie season -- as well as Patrick Doody and Drew Conner, neither of whom made a first team appearance in 2016. Fellow Homegrown product Collin Fernandez held a guaranteed contract for 2017.
WATCH: 2016 Chicago Fire Goals Reel
Whether Solignac is back in the fold to feature up top remains to be seen, but the club is still likely to pursue a candidate to pull the strings in an attack that gained cohesion through Alvarez, David Accam, Michael de Leeuw and John Goossens.
“While we feel good about the talent and experience we’ll be returning on each line in 2017, the needs we’ve spoken about publicly in the past have not changed,” Rodríguez said. “We feel we can add leadership within our locker room, sources of goals to our lineup and competitive depth to our squad.”
So what’s next? Rodríguez and the technical staff are already steeped in scouting and recruiting processes in preparation for January’s international signing window and MLS SuperDraft, but also have their eye on the start of player movement within MLS. That begins with a brief Half-Day Trade Window occurring the morning after MLS Cup on Sunday, Dec. 11.
The ensuing week then brings a flurry of potential personnel arrivals and departures, including the Expansion Draft (Dec. 13), the start of MLS free agency (Dec. 13), the Waiver Draft (Dec. 15) and Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Draft (Dec. 16). Like most player acquisition scenarios, each of those mechanisms carries with them an element of unpredictability.
“There are certainly players within the league that fit the characteristics and the roles that we seek,” Rodríguez told media members back in October. “There’s also a tremendous variable in this in which you never know when an unexpected opportunity presents itself."
With that in mind, the Fire are well-positioned heading into the next phases of the offseason.
"We have our plan, our targets and the means for acquisition," Rodríguez said. "As we create the right opportunities for ourselves or unexpected ones arise, we will be ready to act.”