Fire head to Lions' den in meeting of two of Eastern Conference's best

Fire head to Lions' den in meeting of two of Eastern Conference's best

There have not been many big games for the Chicago Fire in the past few years.

The team’s struggles prevented many truly important games in Major League Soccer. This year, though, things have changed.

The Fire have won four in a row and have the second best record in the league. None of the opponents during the Fire's run have been teams in playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but that changes on Sunday.

The Fire (7-3-3, 24 points) head to Orlando (7-5-2, 23 points) in a meeting between two of the top four teams in the conference. The Lions are 6-1-1 at home this season, although they have won just one of the last three in Orlando City Stadium after winning the first five in their new home.

“They’re obviously really good at home so I think we’re expecting them to come out hard the first 10-15 minutes and try and put a lot of pressure on us,” Fire defender Matt Polster said. “I think the goal is to kind of weather the storm a little bit and then after the 15 minutes start to control the pace of the game to what we like and try and take over possession.”

The Fire will be without midfielder Dax McCarty, who is with the national team. Orlando could also be without Brazilian playmaker Kaka. He has been out the past two games due to a calf injury and his status is still unknown, although he did return to training this week.

Whether or not Kaka plays, Cyle Larin will be a key figure for the Fire to watch. Larin has eight goals this season and already 39 in his three-year career.

“He has good hold up play and he can finish,” Polster said. “We just have to limit the chances. They’re good on set pieces so we need to limit those and when he gets near the ball we just need to be a little more tuned in and stop his rhythm a little bit.”

Orlando is coming off a 2-0 win against D.C. United on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Fire had the weekend off after beating FC Dallas on May 25.

Orlando’s win snapped a six-game winless run (two draws, four losses). In that run, Orlando got shut out three times, including a 3-0 loss in Florida to New York City FC.

“They have great support, a great crowd, a new stadium, great atmosphere, but overall they have very good and quality players,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “On our end we believe we have everything what we need to be the good rival and get a win.”

It’s still the first half of the season, but both teams appear to be favorites to make the playoffs at this point. Beating a playoff contender on the road, especially one that has such a strong home record, would be another notch on the Fire’s belt.

“I think this is the first time I can see everyone on the same page,” Paunovic said. “I think the guys are very committed, everyone sees the opportunity to make one of the best seasons for our club in the last many years. We have that great opportunity and we are working towards improving our style overall during the next months.”

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.