Fire believe play was better against Toronto, frustrated result wasn't

Fire believe play was better against Toronto, frustrated result wasn't

Early in the season the coaches and players talked about the Chicago Fire needing time to find some chemistry and figure out how to play with each other. The players, coaches and management all preached patience.

That didn’t happen after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Toronto. The players were mad to lose at home for the first time since April 16.

The positive spin remained. They believed the team played well, but there were no excuses about a team that’s still building like there was in March in April.

“I think we did well,” forward Michael de Leeuw said. “If we played this every week we’re going to win, but sometimes you lose when you play well and a game like that was today. We played well, we created chances, but at the end we have nothing.”

The team had built up confidence after snapping the road winless streak less than a month ago and last week producing a resounding 3-0 win against a likely playoff team in Philadelphia. This was not the Fire team that seemed moderately pleased with home draws earlier in the season just because they were showing progress. This is a team that expected a result, one that didn't come.

“I think the feeling of the team is pretty disappointed that we couldn’t get three points because I thought everybody felt like we played better,” midfielder Matt Polster said. “I thought we put a good performance, 90 minutes.”

Of course, results are all that matters ultimately and even in the Fire’s recent improved run the team is 2-2-2 in the past six matches. The playoffs are out of reach in any practical sense.

There are positive signs. The Fire do have an attack that can score now, with 13 goals in the past six matches.

Saturday was a night of decent play on the field, but nothing to show for it in the result. Is there progress in there somewhere?

“When we look back where we were at the start of the season and where we are now we can see that the team improved way, way, way better,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “Now we look like a team, we play like a team and we really compete. It was tough for us to lose this game and we wouldn’t even be happy if we would tie the game at the end. I think that’s the spirit. I think that’s how the locker room feels now. We wouldn’t be happy with a tie so I think we have not only optimistic group, but the group that wants to win.”

The 2016 Fire may be a finished product in the fact that no major personnel changes can occur with the MLS roster freeze date just days away on Sept. 15. Next year's team will have a more solid foundation to build upon in the offseason than the Fire had a year ago. Fire fans will be hoping it won't take as long to build a cohesive team focused on results in 2017.

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.