The Chicago Fire are facing a critical summer transfer window. It‘s clear that this current team is missing a few pieces and will need reinforcements if they want any hope of making the playoffs again. The front office have plenty of tough decisions to make over the next few months, but one is a no-brainer.
The loan deal for Aleksandar Katai is expiring at the end of June, and the club have the option to make his move a permanent one. Which is exactly what they should do.
There was not much fanfare surrounding the signing of Katai when the deal was initially announced. Chicago supporters were still upset at the front office after David Accam was traded away to Philadelphia a few weeks earlier. The Fire faithful did not know much about Katai either, and weren’t sure he’d be able to adequately replace Accam‘s production. The scout report seemed promising, and Katai‘s skill on the ball was clear. However, many worried about his attitude, and feared he’d be too lazy on the pitch.
Katai got off to a solid start to his Fire career, grabbing a goal in the season opener against Sporting Kansas City. However, he dipped out of form soon after. The winger was subbed off at halftime against the Portland Timbers a few games later and was forced to ride the bench for the following two matches.
There were rumblings that a rift between player and coach beginning to form as well. Veljko Paunovic wanted Katai to run more and track back, but the winger preferred to stay up the field. His stamina was questioned as well, as some assumed he was unable to adapt to the pace of MLS play.
His fortunes soon changed after a screamer in a win against the Red Bulls proving to be the catalyst. Katai went on to play the full 90 minutes in the next four games and started to build some real chemistry with his teammates. At the moment, he has either scored or assisted in his last six games, with his performance last night against the Colorado Rapids arguably his most impressive.
The Fire got off to a nightmare start to the contest, conceding twice to a poor Colorado side. Chicago needed someone to take control of the contest and Katai was the man for the job. He danced round and round several Rapids defenders, who just couldn’t get the ball off him. He helped the Men In Red pull one back, hitting a dangerous cross into the area which was redirected into the back of the net by Danny Wilson for an own goal. But Katai wasn’t done yet.
A few minutes after the Wilson own goal, Brandt Cronico lobbed a ball over the top, which Katai quickly latched onto. He let the ball bounce before picking his head up, at which point he noticed Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard off his line. Katai went for the chip and lobbed his effort perfectly over the keeper, hitting it off the underside of the bar and into the back of the net for the equalizer. It was a moment of magic from the player and would help the Fire salvage a road on the point.
Katai gets plenty of goals and assists but the box score doesn’t do him justice. His ability on the dribble is key to his attacking threat, making life difficult for any defender to mark him. This leads to a breakdown defensively, opening space in behind for other Fire players. Katai takes full advantage of this, possessing the vision and passing ability to pick out any open teammates.
He is dangerous whenever on the ball, forcing the opposing defense to be on their toes at all times. Katai can also hold onto the ball, keeping possession when need be. This allows the Fire backline a chance to breathe and regroup, especially in games where they’re under constant pressure.
Giving credit where it’s due, signing Katai to this deal was a stroke of genius from the front office. Initially bringing in the player on loan, with an option to buy, gave the Fire all the power in the situation. If the winger flopped, and couldn’t adjust to the league, the club could just let his loan expire without having to pay any additional fees. If he were to succeed, even better, as they could sign him on long term without competition from other clubs.
Katai is still not perfect but he’s definitely more than just Good Enough. This situation is a prime example of one in the hand being worth two in the bush for Fire fans. There might be players out on the market who could be better than Katai, but they’d cost a lot more and would be much harder to bring in. He might not be a household name, but Katai has proven he can be an elite player in MLS.
The best thing is, Fire fans have likely only begun to see what Katai is capable of. Once his signing is made permanent, he will be able to truly settle down in the Windy City and focus on getting this Fire team into the playoffs. Katai is just getting started— which is great news for Chicago and bad news for the rest of the league.