Fire snap streak of home draws, put away Union

Fire snap streak of home draws, put away Union

The noise from the crowd said it all when Michael de Leeuw headed in a loose ball in the second half on Saturday night.

His goal gave the Fire a two-goal lead in the 72nd minute and seemingly put the game away. It was the first time the Chicago Fire had a two-goal lead in an MLS match at home this season.

For a team that has struggled to hold onto second-half leads at home, especially lately, it was a welcome change for the home fans. The loud cheer that accompanied the goal, one of the loudest of the season, seemed to say ‘finally.’

"In that moment we were able to break the opponent and finally score that second goal, which was very important and part of our gameplan at halftime," coach Veljko Paunovic said.

Arturo Alvarez added a third goal in the 90th minute after Roland Alberg’s own goal gave the Fire the lead in the first half. The 3-0 win broke a streak of three straight home draws for the Fire (6-12-8, 26 points), all of which the Fire held leads in.

A number of times at home this season, the Fire have had chances on the counter while leading and had never added that exclamation point to seal a game. When Luis Solignac broke free on a counter and saw his shot saved, it seemed another chance would be wasted. Instead, de Leeuw, who has quickly built a reputation as a forward who positions himself well to clean up the scraps, was there to head in the rebound and make it 2-0.

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The win could prove to be a needed confidence boost for the Fire after the most lopsided loss of the season last weekend, a 6-2 defeat at D.C.

"The most important thing is we create a lot of chances and can score a lot of goals," de Leeuw said. "You can see it in the last four or five games. We created a lot of chances. You can’t score all your chances, but it’s good to create chances. The confidence is big because of that.

"At this point I think everybody’s confidence is high.”

Alberg scored a hat trick for Philadelphia (11-10-7, 40 points) when the Union beat the Fire 4-3 on June 22, but he scored in the wrong net this time around. Matt Polster dribbled into the box and tried to slide a ball through to de Leeuw. Alberg slid to break up the play and in doing so wrong-footed goalkeeper John McCarthy, who had to watch the ball slowly trickle into the goal.

Sean Johnson had a standout game in goal for the Fire, including a highlight-reel full extension save on a curling Chris Pontius shot in the first half and a couple reaction saves later on to preserve the shutout. He was credited with five saves.

Johnson said the team did a good job of putting the ugly D.C. loss behind it.

"We finally have a foundation," Johnson said. "I think we’ve done an impressive job over the past few weeks of really building on the first result we had away at Montreal and using that momentum to get better and better. On the night, a fantastic job all the way around the pitch and just doing what I can to contribute."

The Fire remain at home next Saturday against Toronto FC.

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.