After slumping without them, Fire see returns of Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent

After slumping without them, Fire see returns of Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent

After enduring a slump that coincided with three injuries to starters in the Fire’s defense, the team is starting to see the return of those players.

Matt Polster missed three games with a left knee injury, a recurring injury that has bothered him dating back to last year, before returning in last weekend’s win in Montreal. Brandon Vincent missed seven games with a quad injury and came off the bench for the final minutes.

“It felt good to kind of get that first breath in a real game situation, just for mentality wise, for competing back with the group,” Vincent said after training on Wednesday.

Polster assisted on the only goal of the game in Montreal, setting up Bastian Schweinsteiger for the game-winner. Polster said he continues to feel more comfortable at right back, partially due to the role being “much more defined.”

During his absence, Polster noticed some issues in the Fire’s losing streak.

“I thought our movement off the ball was lacking a little bit in that stretch and we weren’t really showing up for each other,” he said. “I think as a group we all stated that. We all came to terms with saying that we weren’t showing up for each other and we weren’t making those runs. I thought in the Montreal game we were all moving, we were moving off the ball and trying to get off the ball and show for each other.”

Polster has made his return to the starting lineup, but Vincent is still waiting for that. Vincent came on as an injury replacement for Patrick Doody in the 89th minute in Montreal. With Doody, who filled in while Vincent was out, missing practice this week it is expected that Vincent will start against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.

The Fire went 1-6 without Vincent right after going unbeaten for 11 straight in MLS. Vincent sees the connection, but doesn’t want to look at it like that.

“I guess it’s easy when people miss time to kind of try to draw some correlations and stuff like that,” Vincent said. “I try not to pay too much attention to it. I think the group went through a little bit of a down streak and I don’t consider myself separate from the group when I’m not playing. We’re all together in this. We all went through a down streak, we bounced back and now we’re looking to rebound and pick up some steam going into the playoffs.”

His injury occurred in warmups before the Fire played at New York City FC on July 22. The Stanford product had never dealt with an injury of that severity.

“I’ve never had any sort of muscle strain or tear or anything like that so I didn’t know what to expect, which was really scary when it happened because the pain was pretty sharp and it was just a really uncomfortable feeling that I was worried about,” Vincent said. “A lot of emotions when I came out.”

Vincent said everything is normal now and the muscle is healed, but he is working with the training staff to manage his workload to “be smart about” his return.

The first game he missed was the first one after the Gold Cup break. The 2-1 loss in Yankee Stadium was the start of a slump that saw the Fire go from contending for the Supporters’ Shield to falling into the thick of the race just to get into the playoffs.

Joao Meira, another starting defender, has missed three games since going down in the opening minutes in the Fire’s first trip to Montreal on August 16. Coach Veljko Paunovic stayed optimistic about the team’s prospects while the three were out and praised the play of Doody and Drew Conner as replacements, but admitted the injured trio was missed.

“When you go back, you see our performance since we start to lose our back line, starting with Brandon in New York City,” Paunovic said. “It was really frustrating. So it goes now in the opposite way. When you have them back it helps the team to find that performance that we had before that.“

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.