Fire rally for draw at Columbus in season opener

Fire rally for draw at Columbus in season opener

It is a new season with some new players for the Chicago Fire, but Saturday's game in Columbus still started with a very familiar feel.

The first half was reminiscent of many of the Fire's road matches in 2016. Fall behind early, struggle to keep possession, struggle to get shots on target. The Fire had two shots in the first half, none were on goal.

The second half, though, was a different story and the Fire were able to leave Ohio with a 1-1 draw thanks to a David Accam goal in the 73rd minute.

Columbus got things started early with a great chance in the third minute. A Justin Meram shot from point blank range was hit right at Jorge Bava, who was in position for the save.

The Crew would later take the lead in the 17th minute though. Ethan Finlay headed in a Justin Meram cross to make it 1-0.

In the second half the Fire had some extended periods of possession and had 10 shots, three on target. The Fire, which had 44 percent of the possession in the first half and just over 46 percent in the second half, were able to get on the ball a bit more and put more pressure on Columbus.

That was rewarded when Dax McCarty intercepted a ball just past the halfway line to start an attack. He fed John Goossens, who gave David Accam the ball in the box, allowing him to work his magic. Accam put some moves on fellow Ghanaian Jonathan Mensah to set up his right foot and put a low curled shot out of reach from Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

"I think the main (halftime) message they gave us was believe in ourselves," Accam said in the postmatch interview on the CSN Chicago broadcast. "I know we have a very strong forward lineup and for us we needed one chance."

Both teams had chances in the final 15 minutes as the game opened up down the stretch, but neither could convert. The Fire also had a draw in the first road match of 2016, a 1-1 result in Orlando with another Accam goal, but finished with just one win and one more draw in the remaining 16 road matches.

With midfielder Juninho suspended and his likely replacement Matt Polster still injured, Goossens played in central midfield along with McCarty. Goossens subbed off in the final minute of the match after going down with what appeared to be an ankle or knee injury. In his place was second-year homegrown Drew Conner, who made his brief MLS debut.

The Fire's home opener is next Saturday against Real Salt Lake.

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.