Fire’s younger players a mixed bag in 2016


Fire’s younger players a mixed bag in 2016

When Joey Calistri subbed on for Arturo Alvarez in the 81st minute of the Chicago Fire's 3-2 loss at Toronto on Sunday it was the first time the rookie homegrown player had seen the field in over a month.

The nine-minute appearance was also more time than he'd seen in a league game in July, August, September and October combined. Calistri played 10 of the Fire's first 13 league matches totaling 333 minutes. In the final 21 matches of the year he made four appearances totaling 15 minutes.

Because Calistri's substitution was the third and final sub for the Fire, it also signified that fellow homegrown players Patrick Doody and Drew Conner would not play in 2016. Both made the list of available substitutes in Toronto, but did not get the call to sub into the match.

This offseason the Fire got younger with first-round draft picks Brandon Vincent (22 years old) and Jonathan Campbell (23), second-rounder Alex Morrell (22), homegrowns Calistri and Conner (both 22) and international players Rodrigo Ramos (21), Khaly Thiam (22) and David Arshakyan (22) joining the team. Some of the players like Vincent and Campbell were major contributors in 2016 and could be a significant part of the team in the future. Meanwhile, the Fire's four homegrown players, 19-year-old second-year pro Collin Fernandez in addition to Calistri, Conner and Doody, combined for two starts. Fernandez made two substitute appearances for a total of eight minutes.

Campbell played in 33 of the Fire’s 34 matches, starting 30 of them at center back, and was in the early running for Rookie of the Year before Jordan Morris, Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Harrison solidfied themselves as the top three in that race. Vincent finished with 24 starts and 26 appearances at left back and was named to the MLS All-Star team. Those two, along with Johan Kappelhof, could potentially form the core of the team’s defense next year.

Another young defender, Ramos, showed flashes of being a dangerous attacking right back and made 16 starts. However, the Brazilian seemed to fall out of favor with Paunovic in the final two months of the season and the Fire will have to pick up the option on his loan to make him a permanent member of the team.

A pair of younger international players, Arshakyan and Thiam, saw semi-regular playing time down the stretch after joining during the season, but neither made a big impression. Thiam, like Ramos, joined on loan so his future remains up in the air. Arshakyan joined the team in August and both Arshakyan and Paunovic have said he is still settling in.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez has talked about trying to form a core of players to build around for years to come. Campbell and Vincent showed the potential to be valuable parts of such a core, but for many of the Fire's younger players, 2016 was a season of missed, or a lack of, opportunities.

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.