Fire

Fire return to reality and Toyota Park for Saturday's match against New England

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Fire return to reality and Toyota Park for Saturday's match against New England

Back to reality for the Chicago Fire.

The team’s coaching staff, office staff and a handful of players focused on the All-Star Game as it took place in Chicago this week. Now, it’s back to regular season games in Major League Soccer.

The Fire get to stay at home when they take on New England on Saturday. The game will be on CSN+ (channel finder) with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

The Fire’s coaching staff was pulling double duty, training the MLS All-Stars and what players remained with the Fire. Five players were not in training with the team with the team’s four all-stars, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Johan Kappelhof, and Djordje Mihailovic, who played and scored in the homegrown game on Tuesday, unavailable.

“I think this week the guys worked very well, the training was with a small group, but very committed,” Paunovic said after the All-Star Game on Wednesday. “The next game is the most important game from now on. I was working still with Chicago Fire all these days. I was working the same way and putting all my energy in that also.”

The Fire (11-5-5, 38 points) already have a pair of wins against the Revolution (7-9-5, 26 points) this season, but there is a possibility that the Fire enter a bit distracted or less prepared than normal. On top of having a number of key players out of training, and the coaching staff’s attention divided, the people involved had extra duties as hosts, so to speak, of the event.

That may not be clearly visible on Saturday, but it could be a small factor.

“I’m very happy how we did, but now we can focus on only Chicago,” Paunovic said.

The match does represent a needed return home for the Fire. After going winless on a three-match road trip, including losing the last two, the Fire can try to extend the eight-match home winning streak the team has enjoyed. Only two of those eight wins were decided by one goal.

The Eastern Conference has tightened up while the Fire struggled on the road. New York City FC is just one point behind the second-place Fire, a surging New York Red Bulls sit three points back and Atlanta is four points behind the Fire. With 13 matches left in the regular season, the race for playoff positions appears to be worth keeping an eye of the rest of the way.

The Fire will be without Brandon Vincent for the third straight game. Arturo Alvarez, who missed last week’s loss in Kansas City, is listed as questionable with a calf injury.

New England, which has won two straight, enters Toyota Park with a mostly clean bill of health.

The match will also be the Fire's first with MLS' new video review system.

Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

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

Records: Fire (11-5-5, 38 points), New England (7-9-5, 26 points)

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

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USA TODAY

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.