The Fire have clinched a playoff spot, now the fun begins


The Fire have clinched a playoff spot, now the fun begins

When Toronto FC came to Toyota Park on Aug. 19 there was a big game atmosphere that hadn’t existed in Bridgeview for years, and certainly hadn’t existed since Veljko Paunovic took over as coach in 2016.

That game had some hype behind it as a potentially huge game in the Supporters’ Shield race. By the time Toronto came to town, the Fire had fallen back, losing four of the previous five games. Toronto’s 3-1 win was a decisive blow to the Fire’s chances of catching Toronto and the Reds are now on the verge of clinching the Shield.

What was significant about that game was the tension in the air and the fact that the crowd knew it was a big game. Saturday’s game against New York City FC (live on CSN+ with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live) is another big game with New York holding the crucial second spot, and the first-round bye that comes with it, in the Eastern Conference.

Whether or not the players and coaches of the Fire would admit it, they were likely feeling some pressure as the team lost six of seven games in July and August and later lost at a Philadelphia team that has been out of the playoff race for weeks. After the Fire clinched a playoff spot on Wednesday with a resounding win in San Jose, the pressure should be relieved. Entering the season, most Fire fans would have been happy to take a playoff berth, meaning the minimum standard has been achieved.

That’s what Dax McCarty said after the San Jose win: “I think if you want to be a successful club in Major League Soccer, it should be the bare minimum expectation every season to make the playoffs.”

So with the bare minimum out of the way, now it gets to the good stuff. Saturday’s game against NYCFC is a truly big game, something the club hasn’t experienced many of in recent years. The Toronto game was an early taste of a big game (and it showed how much better Toronto is than the Fire). Now, this is a game between two teams already headed to the playoffs and in a race for playoff seeding.

The Fire are four points behind NYCFC with three games left. Atlanta is a point ahead of the Fire and has four games remaining. Any chance of getting a first-round bye starts with a Fire win on Saturday. If New York wins, they clinch a top three seed.

Beyond seeding, the Fire also need to show they can beat Eastern Conference playoff teams. With the six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference appearing all wrapped up (barring a collapse by the New York Red Bulls), the Fire have a 2-6-2 record against those teams and an 0-5-1 mark on the road.

David Accam was rested for this game, not making the trip to San Jose, and Bastian Schweinsteiger could return. The German has missed the last four games, but was not listed on the injury report. Rushing back Schweinsteiger without training time in the past couple weeks could have long-term damage, but could also give the team a much-needed boost with one of the best teams in the league going to Toyota Park.

Let’s see what the Fire can do in a big game before the truly big games start in late October.

Chicago Fire vs. New York City FC

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (15-10-6, 51 points), NYCFC (16-8-7, 55 points)

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.