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Strong preseason lifts Fire’s hopes

First-year Fire coach Veljko Paunovic led the team to a 5-0-1 record in the preseason.

BY JEFF ARNOLD

For The Sun-Times

Fire forward David Accam can already sense a difference.

Accam watched the way his teammates finished the preseason with a 2-0 win over the defending MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers and realized the bar of expectation has already been raised under first-year coach Veljko Paunovic.

“The quality of play is amazing compared to last season,” Accam said this week.

How that carries over to Sunday’s 1 p.m. season-opener against New York City FC at Toyota Park remains among the unanswered questions facing the Fire.

Paunovic hasn’t yet publicly announced if two preseason shutouts are enough to propel goalkeeper Matt Lampson into a starting role over Sean Johnson. Even though Accam said he is good to go following a bout with illness that forced him out of the lineup in Portland, Paunovic said he won’t push Accam too hard while he is still dealing with some muscular issues.

Despite some unresolved issues for a coach who has spent the off-season altering the mental make-up of his club, Paunovic has difficulty hiding his excitement level for Sunday’s opener.

“They could feel in this tournament [in Portland] what it looks like to be a winner,” Paunovic said Monday at the club’s annual kickoff luncheon. “This is what we have to translate to the season.”

General manager Nelson Rodriguez announced Monday he has signed Dutch midfielder John Goossens to a contract, but he may not have his visa in time for Sunday’s opener. Fellow trialist Arturo Alvarez and second-round pick Alex Morrell were both introduced with the team at Monday’s event despite neither has yet signed a contract. Rodriguez said the Fire will begin the season with 24 players, but remains on the lookout for more international players.

With the Fire still a work in progress, Paunovic is charged with changing the fortunes of a franchise that has missed the playoffs in each of the last three years and five out of the last six.

A 5-0-1 preseason showing may indicate he has the Fire moving in the right direction, but Paunovic knows none of that truly matters if his club can’t win when when the games begin to count, beginning Sunday.

“We believe we had the opportunity to prove ourselves in the preseason – that we can be a winning team,” he said. “We worked all together, we have a style of play that we want to play, but at the same time, we have to be committed on that.”

Accam acknowledged much of that will fall on himself and his teammates. He has already seen a change in intensity and passion come out of the systems Paunovic has put into place. But he, along with Paunovic, realizes that true transformation will come over time regardless of how much progress the Fire may have made in the preseason.

“[Paunovic] knows what he wants and it’s going to take hard work,” Accam said. “That’s what (Paunovic) always tells us – it’s on us. We need to work hard and show commitment. I think the fans will see more of that this year.

See the Sky

Sky single-game tickets are now available and are priced as low as $18 for lower bowl seats. Beginning this season, complimentary parking will accompany each paid ticket. The Sky, who are entering their 11th WNBA season, begin their 17-game home schedule against the Connecticut Sun on May 14 at Allstate Arena. For more information, call 866-SKY-WNBA or visit www.ChicagoSky.net.

Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_.