Fire

Former Mexican youth international goalkeeper Richard Sanchez sees joining Fire as 'great opportunity'

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USA TODAY

Former Mexican youth international goalkeeper Richard Sanchez sees joining Fire as 'great opportunity'

When Jorge Bava’s elbow injury required season-ending surgery, the Chicago Fire suddenly needed another goalkeeper.

In his place, the Fire signed Richard Sanchez. The 23-year-old is a product of the FC Dallas academy and signed with the club as a homegrown player.

Internationally, Sanchez has represented Mexico at the under-17 and under-20 levels, including El Tri’s triumph in the 2011 U-17 World Cup in Mexico. On the club level, he was most recently under contract with Tigres in Mexico’s Liga MX.

“My contract ended with Tigres over in Monterrey,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t agree to some terms so now my contract runs out and I was a free agent. I was training on my own, kind of doing gym sessions and personal training on my own with some other goalkeeper coach. I also trained with FC Dallas before and was kind of getting ready for whatever was to come.”

What came was Sanchez signing with MLS and going through the league’s allocation process for returning players. It’s one of the more confusing mechanisms in MLS, but the end result was the Fire sending a third round pick in next year’s draft to Portland to move up in the allocation order and then using that spot to sign Sanchez on Aug. 11.

Sanchez said his intention was to come back to MLS to get playing time and experience after his Tigres contract ran out.

“I thought I can grow and look for some minutes and that’s kind of the opportunity that popped up in Chicago,” Sanchez said. “Through the allocation process and the re-entry process of MLS, it’s kind of weird is probably the word that you can use, but hey, it gave me a great opportunity here in Chicago. They picked up my rights so I’m glad to be here and I’m glad to be a part of this team.

“Everybody has been good so I’m just adapting now to the city, to the people here and hoping to help the team.”

Sanchez said he likes coach Veljko Paunovic’s style of focusing on possession and building out of the back. That is what Sanchez said he was used to from his time in Mexico.

Professional minutes have been hard to come by for Sanchez, who didn’t make any appearances for Dallas or Tigres. His only first-team appearances have come on loans to lower tier leagues. Regardless, Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said he likes Sanchez’s resume and skillset.

“Richard gives us a player who knows the league, who knows pressure moments, who’s experienced in division one football,” Rodriguez said last week. “Whether or not that translates to a longer stay with us, again we’ll have to feel that out a little bit, see how much he likes Chicago and what our program is about and then see if it remains a fit for him.”

Sanchez joins starter Matt Lampson and rookie Stefan Cleveland as the Fire’s goalkeepers. For now, Sanchez is still integrating into the team and the system, but if he impresses enough he could be competing for playing time next year.

“Obviously you want to compete for the job and what they look for is that competitiveness within the group so of course I think that’s the expectation they have for me is to bring some good competition within this group, add to what they’ve already built up to this moment and in my case, a goalkeeper’s case, just help out Lampson and Stefan to be better," Sanchez said. "That’s kind of what I’m here for.”

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.