Aleksandar Katai has arguably been the best attacking player for the Chicago Fire this season. But the looming decision to buy or move on is being magnified. The Fire have arrived at a turning point.
The Chicago Fire usually have a decent name or two, but they have failed to build a complete team in Andrew Hauptman’s tenure as owner. After years of finishing at the bottom of the table, however, the Fire surprised last year with a third-place finish in the East.
The front office failed to make huge signings, or very many depth signings, in the offseason. Where fans wanted the team to really go for a trophy, the executives saw a group they were confident could replicate that playoff season.
The looming decision to sign Aleksandar Katai will signal to the fans what President Nelson Rodriguez truly believes, or perhaps just what he is incapable of. The players appreciate Katai. I saw that live when the Fire hosted the San Jose Earthquakes. The role players shaped their play to go towards Katai or Bastian Schweinsteiger. Dax McCarty, meanwhile, is just there to provide support to the two stars.
He recognizes Katai’s quality. ‘It’s easy for everyone to see that Katai is one of our more dangerous players in the attack, if not our most dangerous player in the attack,’ McCarty said. ‘When we lost David Accam, Katai was a guy that was brought in to replace that production and that danger. It took him a while to get going and now I think you’re starting to see the best of him and how dangerous he can be. He can play on either flank, he’s very good with the ball, he’s very technical. It should come as no surprise. You don’t earn a contract in Spain if you aren’t a good player.’
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‘So, selfishly, as a guy who appreciates good attacking talent, I would love for him to stay and to keep him,’ McCarty added. ‘All I can say is that he makes us a better team in the attacking third and there’s no question about that.’
Why are players giving quotes that suggest they need to hope Katai stays with the team? Is Katai giving off a vibe in the locker room that has the players worried? It is a good sign when professionals talk at length about a teammate’s positive qualities, but the Fire would undoubtedly be in trouble if Katai departed. The players know it.
Schweinsteiger, McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Katai would be a top midfield core for any team in MLS. Yet, Veljko Paunovic sounds as if he is filled with indecision. Given his past negotiations, it is doubtful there are better players lined up waiting on the roster spot. Katai has been the best offensive player for the Fire since he arrived. MLS has plenty of energy players, but Katai pairs energy with intelligence. That’s rare.
‘We still have time to decide and we still haven’t decided,’ Paunovic told MLSsoccer.com. ‘So that means that we expect that he can continue with his good performances and literally until the last minute, while we have time, we will make the decision. It’s still not done yet.’
Katai’s wife already had family in the city before he arrived, and he has only positive things to say about Chicago.
‘I like it too much here, I like the US generally, you know,’ Katai said. ‘Chicago is a very nice city, I have family here so it’s very good for me and I am very, very happy here.’
Katai is actually coming from a terrible situation in Spain, so even a toxic club culture in Chicago is worth the saving efforts.
‘I definitely want to stay here because I had some bad moments there in Spain, I was not happy there and here it is a different situation,’ Katai told MLSsoccer.com. ‘I play here, I am scoring goals and I am happy here and I hope I will stay, but they need to make a decision.’
Katai has months of good form to point to in negotiations. He has started 13 of the last 14 games and the Fire (5-7-3, 18 points) have crept up the table, and the MLSMultiplex Power Rankings, as a result. The Fire could sign a third Designated Player or promote Katai to that third DP slot; they should have enough Target Allocation Money or General Allocation Money to pay for him. Options are aplenty. And yet tension reigns.
Despite the tension, the rumors, and the upcoming transfer window, though, Paunovic continues to plead for patience.
‘Get ready and prepare for a tough couple of months because we are far from the team that we were, and it’s going to take some time to fix it. We have to stick together, and I want to make that clear.’
‘We have a good team but we are still not in the shape that this team used to play and that we showed in the past. The past is behind and what we have to do now is fix what we have in front of us and that’s a difficult situation in terms of lack of confidence, lack of precision, and lack of clarity sometimes in ideas.’
‘But that’s why we’re here, and I promise that we’re going to fix it and I promise that in a couple of months I’ll make a different balance.’
Fire fans only need to look towards the empty supporters group sections to see patience is wearing thin. Ownership seemed sour that Chicago fans have not given the team a Basti bump in attendance the way a Kaka or Zlatan has in other teams.
Keeping Katai would help keep the fans that still care. The everyday supporters would rather get behind a Katai than a Kaka, and Katai has given them good reason with his play.
Fire fans want to keep Katai. He already has a song. Rumors of a big signing like Fernando Torres might bring out a few soccer hipster poseurs, but without Katai, a Torres type would be wasted. The loyal fans know the stars have quality but the role players need to be upgraded. Losing a star would send the wrong message.
If Katai leaves, the Fire cannot make a public promise to sign a big name. The fans are too cynical, and Rodriguez’s track record too uninspiring. A few signings of second-tier allocation prospects would set the Fire up to make a playoff run. Names do not win championships. Names sell plenty of jerseys, but they need support to win.
Katai is entering his prime at 27. He could merit an MLS All-Star team selection for the next World Cup cycle. He almost played his way into the Serbian World Cup team in his limited time in MLS.
There will be no better situation for the Fire to retain a top MLS talent. Shedding Katai to bring in a replacement mid-season leaves the team churning in the same situation of barely competing against the top dozen teams in MLS. Keeping Katai plus adding a piece, though, could vault the Fire into the top-four in the East. A turning point has arrived.