Fire

Frigid afternoon can't cool down Fire in opener

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Frigid afternoon can't cool down Fire in opener

Saturday, March 26, 2011
Posted: 7:17 p.m.

By Dieter Kurtenbach
Contributor to CSNChicago.com

Goals from Diego Chaves, Gaston Puerari and Marco Pappa lifted the Chicago Fire to a 3-2 victory over 10-man Sporting Kansas City in the team's home debut.

The Fire earned their first win of the year in a testy affair on a frigid afternoon. The game kicked off with a stiff breeze and a just-quite freezing 32 degree temperature.

"Three points, first game of the year, I think we're happy about that," Fire midfielder and captain Logan Pause said. "Obviously we made it pretty interesting. The priority is the first game at home, setting the tone three points, crucial."

The Fire's first goal was scored on the counter attack half-an-hour into the game. A Kansas City free kick inside the Fire defensive zone was cleared with a lob pass over the Kansas City back line that a streaking Puerari took on a breakaway.

One-on-one with Kansas City goaltender Jimmy Nielsen, Puerari was fouled from behind by Kansas City striker Omar Bravo.

Referee Jasen Anno awarded a penalty kick on the foul, and after a two-minute verbal fracas that migrated from the penalty area to the sidelines and back, Bravo was given a red card and sent off.

In both of the Fire's games this season, their opponent has had to play a man down for significant time. Last week against FC Dallas, the Fire had a man advantage for 38 minutes. Saturday, it was nearly an hour.

Chaves took the penalty kick for the Fire, blasting a bending shot into the right corner of the net.

It was the second breakaway opportunity for Puerari in as many games. In the Fire's 1-1 draw against FC Dallas last week, Puerari had a similar oppurtunity, but his shot was saved by Kevin Hartman.

Puerari broke through four minutes after the first goal, cutting in behind the Kansas City defense inside the penalty box in rhythm with a Michael Vidiera lead pass. The goal was Puerari's first of the year and first in MLS.

Chaves and Puerari both signed with the Fire coming from separate Uruguayan clubs in the offseason, and are best friends off the field. That chemistry has manifested itself in three of the Fire's four goals on the season.

"We have different styles, but the same mentality," Chaves said. "We know where the other is on the field, we know where the other guy moves,"

Pause isn't surprised at the tandem's success.

"I think it's important that they work when they have the ball, and they work when they don't have the ball, and that's so important in this league," Pause said. "I'm just happy they were both rewarded with goals tonight."

Kansas City pushed back in the second half, despite their player disadvantage. Teal Bunbury entered the game for the former Wizards at halftime and was able to create opportunities as a right wing and striker, exploiting the Fire's three-man defensive core.

Bunbury's play highlighted several minutes of sustained offensive pressure from Kansas City at the onset of the second half. Kansas City would break the shutout six minutes in, when Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson took an aggressive line to intercept a crossing pass and missed, leaving Kansas City midfielder Chance Meyers with an open net and plenty of time to strike.

Johnson took responsibility for the goal after the game.

"The second half they put a decent amount of pressure on us, and the first goal I should have dealt with it better," Johnson said. "I'll put that one on my back."

Marco Pappa scored in the sixtieth minute to reestablish the Fire's two goal lead. Summoning his inner Derrick Rose, Pappa went through four Kansas City defenders with an ankle-breaking drive to goal that started outside the penalty area.

"He's such a great player, and his head, it's always up," Chaves said of Pappa's goal. "I was to his right, and he was always looking to me, and just the look the guys came with me and he got his space."

"I think it was a lucky goal," Pappa said with a head shake and a chuckle.

Kansas City would get that goal back when Bunbury, serviced by a errant backpass from Chicago's Gonzalo Segares, beat Johnson on a breakaway in the seventy-third minute.

Pause said that the second-half defensive lapses are to be expected, given that it's early in the season and Kansas City had no choice but to full-out attack.

"It's tough when you're up 2-0, up a man, they're just throwing numbers forward, and they have to take risks," Pause said. "Some of those risks paid off for them."

Even if it's easy to excuse the goals, Pause called the second-half performance careless.

"Concentration, we let it slip a little bit. Those are things at this point of the year, we're kind of wiping our brow, saying 'phew, we got away with one' We'll take the three points."

With 12,157 in attendance on a not-ideal day, head coach Carlos de los Cobos was pleased that his team matched the intensity of the supporters with their play on the field.

"We need to create a very strong advantage for Chicago Fire here at home," de los Cobos said. "Last season we lost a lot of points, we lost games and the intention of this year is different, and I am very satisfied. I know we need to improve in some things, but what's most important is that players create a great community in each other, and they are fighting every minute."

"We have no stars this year," Chaves said of the team's mentality. "We're just players that want to take things how do you say? 'To put the Fire on the top.'"

Veljko Paunovic in search of consistency as Fire begin preseason

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Veljko Paunovic in search of consistency as Fire begin preseason

When Nelson Rodriguez took over as Fire general manager towards the end of the 2015 season, he talked about a long-term plan. As him and coach Veljko Paunovic enter the third year together, 2018 represents a significant season for the duo.

While the regular season success of last year showed significant progress, the early playoff exit showed there is still further to go for the Fire to become the “championship program” Rodriguez speaks of repeatedly. Tuesday marked the first day of training for the Fire in 2018 even though the roster, by Rodriguez’s own admission, is “incomplete.”

The rookie class, which features two top 10 draft picks in Jon Bakero and Mo Adams and a homegrown signing in Grant Lillard who likely would have been in that range as well had he been eligible for the draft, could help improve the team. On the flip side, the trade of David Accam leaves a big hole in the attack.

Tuesday’s training session at the Toyota Park Dome in Bridgeview marked the first time for the rookies and other new arrivals to train with the Fire. At this point fitness is more of a focus than during the season, but Paunovic has other goals in mind as well.

“Getting the new guys on the same page with the other guys in terms of how we train, what our values, how we behave, what is our work ethic and everything that we have to introduce to them in the first week,” Paunovic said. “On the other side we are also working on our fitness and from the first day we will start to work on our style and just remind the guys who are returning from the last year and the new guys have to get on the same page as everyone else.”

Rodriguez said he was excited by the opening of camp, but also told the players beforehand that nothing is guaranteed.

“Everything needs to be earned,” Rodriguez said. “The returning players and the veterans maybe have a little bit of a head start, but nothing is promised other than we will make every decision that we think is in the best interest of winning, upholding our values and serving our community.”

The group was a bit short-handed on Tuesday with Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster both in national team camp and Johan Kappelhof not having traveled to the U.S. while he awaits the birth of a child. Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic are working out to recover from ACL tears, but won’t be with the group.

Three trialists are on the training camp roster: winger Josh Gatt, Uruguayan defender Maxi Moreira and goalkeeper Sam Howard. Gatt is notable for being a speedstar in his prime with then-Norwegian champions Molde, but knee injuries have limited him since. The 26-year-old American played with Colorado and Minnesota last year, his first in MLS, and had his option declined after the season. There were two players from the Fire’s academy in training as well.

With so many faces not there yet and likely future additions still to be made, the team doesn’t yet resemble what will be on display for the season opener on March 10. However, Paunovic is hoping to see consistency to improve upon last year.

“I think last year we just showed what we are capable of and this year we have to have more consistency in everything we do on and off the field,” he said. “I think we established our style, but I’m going to start with the defense. I think we allowed too many goals, sometimes too innocent and not being concentrated and focused on what’s going on on the field. We could have avoided all that and that’s the first thing we want to improve. Then I think it’s going to be very important to work on our set pieces, offensive set pieces, which we didn’t have a good year last year. These are the things that you can immediately see and recognize that have to improve.”

What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

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What’s next for Fire after making three trades on draft day?

For much of this winter, it appeared the Fire would enter 2018 with much of the same team that had the third best record in the league in 2017.

There were only minor surprises when the team announced which options it picked up and which players were cut loose. Homegrown signing Grant Lillard was the first addition of the offseason on Jan. 10 and that was expected after he completed his college career.

However, Nelson Rodriguez was apparently busy in the week leading up to the draft and saw that work turned into three trades on Friday. The Fire got two picks in the top 10 and sent away two starters from last year, including key winger David Accam.

There were already holes to fill on the roster, but the exits of Accam and goalkeeper Matt Lampson mean there are a couple more position needs with training camp starting on Monday.

“The roster is very much incomplete,” Rodriguez said after the draft. “There’s still quite a bit of work left to do. While it’s ideal to go into training camp with something that more closely resembles the roster that you’re looking to get into the season with. In our case, it is more important that we continue to add pieces that we think fit our style, fit our mentality, fit our philosophy and it’s important now that we remain disciplined in that pursuit and not feel pressure to just close the deal.”

A look at a potential starting lineup based on the current roster isn’t by any means bad, but it does need some improvement to match or improve upon last year.

Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty again give the Fire an elite central midfield pairing, Nemanja Nikolic is back after winning the Golden Boot in his first year and the defense should be somewhat solid depending on how Lillard and Jonathan Campbell fill in for the departed Joao Meira. However, goalkeeper is a question mark with Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland having two MLS appearances between them and Nikolic needs help in the attack with Accam and Arturo Alvarez gone and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic expected to be out until at least July while recovering from torn ACLs.

Seeing Accam leave seemed like an inevitability at some point after years of rumors and complaints. Now that it’s a reality, it’s up to Rodriguez and the Fire to deliver an attack that can be productive without him after he had 14 goals and eight assists last year.

Second-year player Daniel Johnson is the immediate fill-in for Accam. He showed flashes of his potential last year as a rookie, but was limited to 125 after dealing with multiple injuries in 2017. Jon Bakero has the ability to step in underneath Nikolic, but that is an important role to throw at a rookie. The Fire’s dip at the end of last season coincided with de Leeuw’s injury so getting production out of that spot will be important.

The Fire could probably do just fine with one of Johnson or Bakero playing significant minutes in the first half of the season, but both? That’s asking an awful lot out of inexperienced players and it’s why the attack is likely where other moves will come.

Rodriguez said after the draft that there had been more trades in the works and some may still happen.

“We were very aggressive in Florida and here in Philadelphia in trying to make trades within the league and we were unsuccessful,” he said. “Some of those opportunities were by design, by our pursuit. There are still some opportunities which we wish to continue exploring and we will continue to make efforts.”

Rodriguez said the Accam trade gave the team “a lot of flexibility.” The allocation money gives the Fire an expanded salary cap of sorts to work with. Rodriguez said it “further opens up targets in the league” and he also added that they have specific players in mind.

“We also have three targets in particular outside of MLS,” he said. “I would say it’s possible given our current stated resources, our salary budget against the cap, it’s possible to potentially add two of those. Again, those are international deals. You first have to get the deal done before you can worry about the salary budget implications, but we will continue to be deliberate in our actions and disciplined in our attention.”

The Fire's roster is at 21, with two of those going to miss half the season due to injury, after finishing last season with 30.