Fire

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.”

[MORE FIRE: After always being on dominant teams, Bastian Schweinsteiger is adjusting to the parity of MLS]

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.”

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”