Facing defending MLS champ Seattle is 'a great motivation' for the Fire

Facing defending MLS champ Seattle is 'a great motivation' for the Fire

After going through a three-game road trip with one point, the Chicago Fire return to Toyota Park with the reigning MLS Cup champions awaiting them.

The Fire (3-3-3, 12 points) host the Seattle Sounders (2-3-4, 10 points) on Saturday at 8 p.m. It is an opportunity for the Fire to pick up a statement win against the defending champs, albeit the somewhat struggling defending champs, in front of a national TV audience.

“It will be nice to be back home,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We’ve won a couple games at home. Obviously if you want to be a playoff team you have to win your home games.”

The Fire are undefeated at home (3-0-1) and the Sounders have just one win in five road matches (1-2-2). Seattle is coming off a pair of disappointing games at home. First was a 3-3 draw against New England in which the Sounders trailed 3-0 after 70 minutes. Next was a 1-0 loss against a Toronto team which sat a few key starters, including former MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco.

Seattle actually has a worse record through nine matches than last year when the Sounders made a miraculous closing run to the regular season to get into the playoffs and then stayed hot in the postseason. The Sounders were 4-4-1 a year ago and then won just two of the next 12 matches.

Despite the Sounders’ inconsistency to begin 2017, the Fire are still looking at this match as a way to prove a point.

“The current champion, it’s always a great motivation,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “They are a fantastic team, a lot of good players, great coaching staff, culture. They have it all. We also believe that motivates a lot. We also believe that we are ready. We are very close to be the team that we want to be and we will work hard towards that goal.”

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“Seattle is a good team,” Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “They won last year. We know that. They have also very good players. They try to play so much as they can. They have a very good player with Clint Dempsey. We are looking forward to competing with them, but we are more focused on our game.”

Dempsey has three goals and an assist, showing that he is still a dangerous player after sitting out the latter half of 2016 due to an irregular heartbeat. Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro is still keying the attack with three goals and four assists. Former Fire left back Joevin Jones has emerged as one of the top attacking fullbacks in the league with five assists.

The match also marks a second return to Toyota Park for former Fire homegrown player Harry Shipp, who was traded by Montreal to Seattle in Shipp’s second trade is as many offseasons.

“Really talented from top to bottom,” McCarty said. “A lot of different ways they can hurt you. A lot of good attacking players and when their attacking players are clicking they’re one of the toughest to defend in the league.”

On the downside, Jordan Morris has just two goals after netting 12 in his rookie year. Seattle may miss both of its regular centerback pairing. Roman Torres (out with a hamstring injury) and Chad Marshall (questionable with a back injury) are both hurt.

For the Fire, midfielder Juninho is listed as questionable with a right ankle sprain. If he is unable to start that could move the Fire to a different formation. Potentially the Fire could lineup in a 4-4-2 with Michael de Leeuw pairing with Nemanja Nikolic at forward or Paunovic could elect to return to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Schweinsteiger sitting deeper and next to McCarty in midfield with de Leeuw playing underneath Nikolic.

Either way, the Fire are hoping to snap a three-game winless streak.

“We haven’t won in three games now and that’s unacceptable so we need to get back in the win column,” McCarty said.

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.