Fire pick up second win with shutout of Columbus

Fire pick up second win with shutout of Columbus

Last week Bastian Schweinsteiger was the story, but Saturday's win against the Columbus Crew was the Dax McCarty show.

McCarty assisted the game-winning goal, had some key defensive plays and helped control the midfield against a possession-oriented Columbus team in a 1-0 win against the Crew.

McCarty, who was named man of the match, slid a through ball to Nemanja Nikolic in the box in the 22nd minute. Nikolic scored his second goal of the season with a first-time low shot that got through goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

"Very, very satisfied with Dax's performance," coach Veljko Paunovic said. "I think every time and every game he is feeling more comfortable and getting in that role that we wanted and expected from him. The leader on and off the field. He is really feeling comfortable. We knew that it was going to take some time, but he's getting to that level."

Schweinsteiger played a much more subdued role than he did in his debut last week, but him and McCarty combined to win the possession battle against a Crew team which entered the match fifth in the league in that category. The Fire had 53 percent of the possession in the first half.

The Fire (2-1-2, 8 points) opened the match in a 3-4-3 formation with Jonathan Campbell, Joao Meira and Johan Kappelhof (back from his red card suspension) manning a three-man defense and having outside defenders Brandon Vincent and Michael Harrington push up higher the field.

Columbus (3-2-1, 10 points) made some halftime adjustments and started the second half as the aggressor. The chess match continued with Paunovic bringing on Drew Conner for Jonathan Campbell 10 minutes into the second half, which moved Vincent and Harrington into defense for a traditional four-man back line.

The Crew had a majority of the possession in the second half and finished with nearly 55 percent possession for the match, but couldn't get on the board.

"I'd say urgency is a good word to use, especially when you're defending a 1-0 lead," McCarty said of the team's defending. "I think there was a little frustration creeping in that we couldn't get the second goal."

The Fire came close to the second goal on a few occasions. A Schweinsteiger free kick just outside the box in the 76th minute forced a full extension save from Steffen. A few minutes later rookie substitute Daniel Johnson was on a breakaway and chipped the ball over Steffen, but Columbus defender Nicolai Naess was able to clear it off the line.

"I would say is a gutsy performance," McCarty said. "It certainly took a lot of heart, a lot of cojones. Certainly it was a very important three points for us because we have one more home game that we need to get another three points and then we go for a really, really tough road trip."

A week after playing a Montreal team without its two best players (Ignacio Piatti and Laurent Ciman) and failing to pick up a win, Columbus came to Toyota Park without Federico Higuain, Jonathan Mensah and Harrison Afful. This time the Fire took advantage and snapped the Crew's three-game winning streak.

Schweinsteiger and McCarty both said the second half wasn't as good as the first half for the Fire, but unlike last week, the Fire held on for the win.

"I hope we can control the game better so that we can enjoy playing football a little bit more," Schweinsteiger said. "At the end of the day, for us it's very important now at the moment to win points. I am happier today than last week when we played a draw. In my eyes we should have won the match. So today I am happy we won the match."

The win moved the Fire into second place in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the rest of Saturday's matches around the league.

Next week the Fire host New England to close out a three-game homestand.

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.