Fire

Fire dominant against Orlando for seventh straight home win

Fire dominant against Orlando for seventh straight home win

Are the Chicago Fire still getting better?

The Fire entered Saturday’s match against Orlando unbeaten in eight straight MLS games, yet showed a level of domination the team hasn’t had for extended periods this year. David Accam scored two goals in the first eight minutes and finished with a hat trick to lead the Fire to a 4-0 win against the visiting Lions on Saturday.

Accam’s first goal was a beauty in the third minute. It came at the end of a 17-pass buildup, which started with a Matt Polster throw in. In the end it was Polster hitting a low cross to Accam, who scored with a pretty backheel from five yards out.

“I think the main thing from the group is that we’re just all moving off the ball," Polster said. "Our movement has been very good in terms of we’re always finding the open man. We’ve been creating a lot of space for each other... I think that’s kind of what we’re trying to build, a lot of running off the ball and creating a lot of space for each other.”

Five minutes later Accam had another goal after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s long ball put Accam all alone with goalkeeper Joe Bendik in the box. Accam dribbled around Bendik and scored.

That incredibly fast start seemed to set the tone for the show. The Fire were not only dominating the game, but they were seemingly having fun while doing so. There were plenty of flicks and tricks and creative set plays on display.

Nemanja Nikolic added one in the second half, on an Accam assist. Accam finished off his hat trick, which he said he believed was the first of his professional career, in the 63rd minute on a penalty kick.

Nikolic now has 14 goals to add to his league-leading total. Even though he is in the running for the Golden Boot, there was no question who was taking the penalty kick.

“I just took the ball and he gave it to me," Accam said. "We share responsibilities with the penalties every time. I know he wants to score every game. For me I try to help him to score goals and I’m glad I did today.”

The Fire (10-3-4, 34 points) remained within a point of Toronto (10-2-5, 35 points) for the best record in the league and reached double-digit wins for the first time since 2013. The regular season is halfway finished.

“We have to understand that this is going to be a long season and we still have to look for the peak of our performance by the end of the season,” coach Veljko Paunovic said.

Orlando (7-6-5, 26 points) was without its leading scorer (Cyle Larin), was coming off a midweek game at Seattle and has one win in its past 11 MLS matches. Even with that, the Lions are in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and the Fire thoroughly dominated.

Orlando didn’t have a shot on target and the Fire had plenty of chances to score more than four. There’s another half to the season remaining, but this Fire team is coming off arguably its best result of the season (last week’s win at New England) and seems to be still improving.

At the beginning of the season, simply ending the team's five-year playoff drought would have been viewed as a minor success. Now, midfielder Dax McCarty, who is set to leave with the U.S. national team following this game for the Gold Cup, says the Fire are hoping for bigger things.

“The mentality is certainly now, let’s not just make the playoffs because that’s not good enough," McCarty said. "Sure, we want to make the playoffs, but we want to win the Open Cup, we want to win MLS Cup, we want to compete for the Supporters’ Shield. Is that realistic to compete for all three, why not? Why not us? I think that’s our motto and our attitude in the locker room right now. Why can’t we win every game. Clearly MLS is a long, hard grind and you’re going to have off days, but we step on the field every day now to compete and win games.”

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

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USA TODAY

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.