Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson believes he is 'vastly improved' from last year

Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson believes he is 'vastly improved' from last year

Matt Lampson is going through a bit of role reversal this year.

Last season, Lampson began the season as the Chicago Fire’s starting goalkeeper. Lampson took the spot even though longtime starting goalkeeper Sean Johnson was still on the roster. He started the first nine matches of the season, but made just two more starts in MLS play the rest of the way.

This year, things are reversed for Lampson. Johnson departed in the offseason, but the Fire brought in Jorge Bava and Bava made the first eight starts. Lampson waited for his chance and got it in the draw at LA on Saturday.

“I’ve been hoping for this the entire year,” Lampson said on Tuesday after training. “I came into the preseason vastly improved on last year, a lot more confidence and I was ready to go help the team win. That’s the number one thing is I’ve been really waiting for my opportunity to help the team win games and I’m glad that I finally got the opportunity.”

Lampson wasn’t credited with any saves, but wasn’t at fault for either of the goals he conceded in the 2-2 draw. The Fire led 2-0 at halftime and Lampson said it was the best first 45 minutes since coach Veljko Paunovic took over before last season.

Lampson said he focused on improving his footwork in the offseason, but it’s the mental side that has changed the most from a year ago.

“I’m not afraid to make mistakes anymore,” Lampson said. “Last year with Sean behind me I knew that there was a ton of pressure for him to play. At this point I’m just confident and I’m just out there playing.”

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With goalkeepers, if you’re not starting, you’re not playing unless the starter gets hurt. Despite entering the season with newfound confidence and belief in his ability, Lampson began the year as the No. 2 goalkeeper and not able to get on the field at all. Lampson was frustrated he couldn’t show what he believes was improvement in his game.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Lampson said. “Everybody always wants to play, but definitely you have to take positives out of it and you have to be mentally strong and be ready for your opportunity when it comes. The number one thing that keeps me going is I’m out here everyday for 30 minutes plus after every practice just improving on things not necessarily to get on the field, but I know it will pay off in the long run when I do get my opportunity. I think that’s what’s happening now.”

Lampson said Paunovic told him the Monday before the LA game that he would be starting. After training on Tuesday, Lampson said Paunovic hadn’t said anything regarding who would get the start Saturday against Seattle.

As Paunovic has said countless times in his Fire tenure, competition for spots in training is something he wants to see. Speaking of Lampson and fellow first-time starter Drew Conner, Paunovic was pleased with how they showed.

“Drew and Matt did well in this game,” Paunovic said. “They deserved it first and they helped the team and that’s the mentality that we forged even last year. We continued doing the same things that we believe are helpful for the team. We also know that our squad improved. The competition on the team is higher than before and that’s what we wanted.”

The 27-year-old Lampson is hoping he can make his starting job stick after being unable to hold down the position last year.

“It felt awesome to get back out there,” Lampson said. “I feel significantly better than I did last year at this time. Hopefully we put a few wins together.”

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.