Fire seek to display improvement against Atlanta after lopsided loss in March

Fire seek to display improvement against Atlanta after lopsided loss in March

On paper it appears the Chicago Fire have improved over the course of the season. Saturday’s match against Atlanta is a chance to prove it.

Back in March the Fire were smoked 4-0 in Atlanta. It was the third game of the year and an early red card to Johan Kappelhof doomed the Fire in a sold-out Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Fire were overwhelmed even before the red card and that result appeared to be a warning sign that the Fire weren’t as improved as the team hoped.

Things have changed since then. The biggest change is the addition of Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German signed during the team’s off week after the loss in Atlanta and debuted in the next match against Montreal.

The Fire are 6-2-3 since Schweinsteiger’s arrival, unbeaten in the last six games and sit second place in the Eastern Conference.

Schweinsteiger said he hasn’t heard much about that game in Atlanta from his teammates, but he has watched some of their games since.

“They are a very good team in my eyes,” Schweinsteiger said. “They have players who can decide a game with one-against-one situations, one-against-two situations. They are aggressive, but they also lost some games.”

Atlanta (5-5-3, 18 points) has scored the most goals in MLS (28 in 13 games) despite having played two fewer games than half the league. The Fire (7-3-4, 25 points) are coming off a scoreless draw in Orlando, which was the first time the Fire did not score since the game in Atlanta.

“We have to find our game,” Schweinsteiger said. “We have to improve our last pass, maybe, or the build up to get easier chances. But we have to be very careful about their players as well. They have quality in the squad so it’s going to be, in a way, tricky for us.”

One of the key figures from Atlanta’s 4-0 win against the Fire in March was Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan forward scored two goals in that match, but hasn’t played for Atlanta since. He got injured playing for Venezuela, but is nearing a return.

Martinez, who received some praise from Brandon Vincent on Fire Weekly on Tuesday, scored five goals in the three games he played for Atlanta before getting hurt.

National team absences will play a big role in the game as well. The Fire will still be without Dax McCarty, but expect to have Juninho back after his wife gave birth last weekend.

Atlanta could be without leading scoring Miguel Almiron, who played 77 minutes in a friendly Thursday for Paraguay. Forward Kenwyne Jones, who played against the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday, will also be out.

Regardless of who is there, coach Veljko Paunovic views Saturday’s game against Atlanta at Toyota Park as a good measuring stick for the Fire.

“This is a great opportunity, a more than an opportunity it’s a great test for us,” Paunovic said. “A maturity test, a test to see how we improved since the game against them and in that game actually the maturity was the main problem.

“Now we are playing against a team that actually was the team that hurt us a lot. We did recover after that loss, but there is still the sense of the payback that we have to implement in our motivation for this game.”

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.