After several weeks of rumors and uncertainty, the sagas involving Fernando Torres and Aleksandar Katai finally have a resolution for the Chicago Fire.
Torres announced Tuesday he is signing with Sagan Tosu in Japan. The Fire then wrapped up signing Katai to a permanent contract on Wednesday.
Katai, whose loan from Deportivo Alaves was set to expire at the end of July, has joined the team through 2019 with a team option for 2020.
Torres didn’t choose the Fire, but that now appears to be a good thing for multiple reasons.
Keeping Katai and not signing Torres is the best-case scenario for the Fire, which have become increasingly reliant on Katai’s attacking influence in recent weeks. Katai is tied for a team-high eight goals and has three assists. Before being kept off the score sheet in Vancouver on Saturday, Katai had scored or assisted in eight straight matches.
The timing of the two moves does seem to indicate the Fire were waiting on Torres before locking up Katai. Torres would probably have done well in MLS. He was playing in the Champions League this past season. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s easy assimilation to the league and to the Fire is proof of how a player being cast away by a top European team doesn’t mean he won’t succeed in MLS.
That said, there are a multiple reasons why failing to add Torres is a good thing for the Fire.
Could the Fire have had both Torres and Katai?
First, it wasn’t clear if the Fire could keep Katai long term while signing Torres. Katai’s salary (listed as $1.276 million by the MLS Players Union) would make him a designated player. Sam Stejskal of MLSSoccer.com reported that he won’t count as a DP until next year, however.
The Fire have two DPs on the roster, Schweinsteiger and Nikolic, and Katai’s emergence this season has made him as valuable as the other two. If it was a choice between getting Torres or keeping Katai, the latter likely was the easy decision. He’s already producing at a high level, and at 27 years old, he could potentially maintain that level for a few years.
Torres would have to assimilate to the team and the league midseason. There’s no guarantee he would be as good as Katai or that he would fit as well as the Serbian has. Plus, at 34, who knows how long Torres will keep playing and how long he will play at a reasonably high level?
So, why risk the change? The Fire don’t need a big-name player as desperately as they did before Schweinsteiger came on board. Now, it’s about winning.
Another striker wouldn’t address Fire’s needs
Striker isn’t the Fire’s biggest problem. While Nikolic and Torres could have likely figured out a way to play well together, there are far more pressing needs on the team. Nikolic won the Golden Boot as a goal poacher, but hasn’t had as many chances this year. Past the halfway point of the season, Nikolic has a third (8) of his goal total (24) from last year.
His efficiency as a striker has allowed him to score, but his shot total is way down from last year. He has 28 shots so far, a pace that would have him record fewer than half as many shots as last season (118).
The Fire need chance creation. Katai has replaced David Accam’s production at winger, but the Fire are in need of a playmaker and are still without last season’s assist leader Michael de Leeuw, 31, who is on schedule to return from a torn ACL sometime in August.
The Fire also need to improve in other areas, namely finding a solid centerback partner for Johan Kappelhof. But locking up Katai is a big win. It gives the Fire one of the most dangerous wingers in the league for the next few years. Missing out on another big name (add Torres to the list with Jermaine Jones, Didier Drogba and Juan Quintero) may sting in terms of optics, but it could allow the Fire better ways to improve in 2018 and beyond.