Fire start busy stretch with a long injury list


Fire start busy stretch with a long injury list

Right before starting a stretch of three matches in eight days is not a good time to have a rash of injuries and illness.

The Chicago Fire start that stretch Saturday in Columbus, which will be aired on CSN+ with coverage starting at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live (channel finder). On top of longer-term injuries to Brandon Vincent (still out with a quad injury) and Daniel Johnson (left MCL sprain), Arturo Alvarez (lower back), Juninho (left knee), Johan Kappelhof (groin), Dax McCarty (illness) and Michael Harrington (illness) are all listed as questionable.

Alvarez wasn’t on the bench in Kansas City two weeks ago. He was on the list of available substitutes last week against New England, but didn’t play. Alvarez was in training this week.

Juninho and Kappelhof both left practice early on Wednesday after picking up those injuries. After practice that day, coach Veljko Paunovic said he expects those players to be available in Columbus.

McCarty and Harrington were kept away from the team Wednesday after being sick.

“Obviously these guys need some adjustments in their workload,” Paunovic said on Wednesday. “We are aware of where we are right now in the season. Late in the season we have to start working on more individualized program for every player and depending on how they feel in everyday communication and chats with them before training, we determine how we’re going to proceed with each one of them.”

The good news for the Fire on the injury front is that Vincent and John Goossens, who has been out since suffering an ankle injury in the season opener at Columbus, were on the practice field getting workouts in while the team trained. That means those two are nearing returns, although neither are imminent.

Columbus has its own injury issues. Right back Harrison Afful (thigh) and playmaking midfielder Federico Higuain (knee) are both listed as questionable. Columbus Dispatch reporter Andrew Erickson had the latest on the status of Afful and Higuain.

Columbus has been busy in the past week by signing winger Pedro Santos from Portuguese club SC Braga and trading long-time winger Ethan Finlay to Minnesota. Santos is not expected to be available for Saturday’s game.

This will be the third of three meetings between the Fire and the Crew. The season began with a 1-1 draw in Ohio. Just over a month later the Fire picked up a 1-0 win at Toyota Park.

“I expect their same style,” Fire defender Jonathan Campbell said. “I don’t know the formation. I know they switched that some in the back with how many people they’re going with, but they’re at home, I expect them to play out of the back. Kind of the same thing as every time before.”

After playing in Columbus, the Fire play in Montreal on Wednesday and host Toronto in a big Eastern Conference clash three days after that.

The Fire are coming off a ninth straight home win, but have lost two straight on the road. Many teams in the league have drastically different records at home and on the road. The Fire are no exception.

“I think if you figure that out, you could be a pretty good coach,” Campbell said with a laugh. “I’m not quite sure. I think travel might have to do a decent amount with it. Playing in front of the fans has a huge impact, but I think just teams aren’t able to play their style consistently for 90 minutes where at home they’re used to the field, the conditions, the routine. So I just don’t think teams are able to do that consistently for 90 minutes. They might try to do that for the first half, but the second half you kind of get tired and start sitting back more and then it wears down.”

Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew

Where: Mapfre Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. (Fire Pregame Live)

Records: Fire (12-5-5, 41 points), Crew (10-12-2, 32 points)

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.