Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win

Even shorthanded, Fire produce 'encouraging' performance in win

Since the Fire rampaged through May and June, the team and its fans have been aching to see that level of play again.

Saturday’s 3-0 win against D.C. United wasn’t quite there yet, but without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho, Michael de Leeuw and Joao Meira (who played but didn’t start) this game was never going to be about style points. It’s just win, baby time and the Fire did that.

The Fire’s struggles in July and August, combined with hot runs from other teams in the Eastern Conference, have made a first-round bye an outside shot and even a first-round home playoff game is still in question. However, with only five games remaining after Saturday’s victory, it’s just about getting three points and keeping pace.

“The name of the game is when you get to this point in the season, five games left, it’s about peaking at the right time,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “It’s about getting momentum through wins and through solid performances and getting shutouts and making sure you’re solid defensively and making sure your attacking players are creating chances. We won 3-0 and I thought Bill Hamid made five or six ridiculous saves to keep them in the game so you have to say it’s not an unbelievable performance. We’ve had better performances this year. It certainly was a step in the right direction heading towards the playoffs.”

[RELATED: Arturo Alvarez takes advantage of first start since July]

With all the absences (de Leeuw due to yellow card accumulation and the other three due to injury), the starting lineup more closely resembled something the Fire would have sent out a year ago, plus Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic. Even if D.C. is last in the Eastern Conference, this was not the game to expect the Fire to dominate. D.C. entered having won three out of four after summer August additions boosted the team.

“Maybe the (score) says more than actually happened because I think they pushed us very hard,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “The first 15 minutes was very tough for us. The first 15 minutes of the second half also. I think they had better opportunities in these moments, but also it was a great moment for our team.”

Despite admitting D.C. had dominant stretches of the match, United finished with 57 percent possession and 66 percent in the second half, Paunovic thought Saturday’s showing was a sign that the Fire may be returning to its best form.

“We were today what we were looking for the whole season,” Paunovic said. “I think we managed very well the game. From this basis I would say that, yes, Chicago Fire with the performance in attack was finally the Chicago Fire that we were used to seeing this year. A little bit different. The approach obviously was different.”

The key for the Fire going forward is what the team will look like once Schweinsteiger et al return. Three of the last five games are on the road and the team remains in third place.

“We’re starting to pick up positive results again,” McCarty said. “That’s encouraging. We went through a rough patch where even though we played some good games and we played well, we weren’t getting results. Playing well without getting results means nothing to be honest. Right now we’re getting good results and we’re probably playing a little bit more pragmatic than we have in the past.”

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.