How will the Fire respond after first setback in nearly two months?

How will the Fire respond after first setback in nearly two months?

The dejection was all over the faces of the Chicago Fire players and coaches after Wednesday’s loss in penalty kicks to FC Cincinnati.

Dejection is something many of them could be used to after how last year went. The Fire suffered many defeats last year en route to a second consecutive last place finish in MLS, but there was something different about this defeat.

This time there was disappointment because this team had gotten used to not losing. The Fire hadn’t lost in almost two months, a stretch of 10 games.

Coach Veljko Paunovic has talked ad nauseum about how he wants the team to forge a winning mentality. While that sounds like coach speak, perhaps in defeat the Fire showed that the mentality is here. A team that hadn’t lost in nearly two months was still crushed to see a defeat as well as losing out on one of the trophies available to win this season.

“Of course now what we have to do is adjust our goals,” Paunovic said after the match. “Now we have to move forward and we have to think about playoffs.”

The Fire had so many chances to score against FC Cincinnati, but couldn’t do so against wizard/goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt. That, plus 120 minutes of play added up to why the team was so physically and emotionally drained after the defeat.

“We all learn from this kind of loss,” midfielder Juninho said. “It’s tough to come here and say something, but our boys, I’m very proud of them. They did everything they could to get a result and tonight was not our night. Let’s focus on the next one.”

Paunovic was asked after the match what he learned about the team from that match. Initially he didn’t have much of an answer and said, “I’ll think about it and let you know.”

Thursday over the phone he did.

“We learned that the importance of that one play that we needed in the game, just one pass, one cross, one shot to be accurate in order to win the game,” Paunovic said. “Later it was just that. I can tell, yes, we lack of this, but if you think about the game, then you see that we had the opportunity here, we had the opportunity there. We missed just one play to be done from the start until the end with no interruption or mistakes.”

Paunovic said at halftime in Cincinnati, he and the team compared the match to the 0-0 tie at Orlando in early June when the Fire had a two-man advantage by the end of the match, but couldn’t break down a team focused on defending as its only objective.

“More and more teams will play the way Cincinnati played and the way Orlando played and we will have to learn together to break them down,” Paunovic said. “It all again goes to that one play.

“If we score that goal it would have been a completely different game. The crowd would shut down, we would shut down their defense, they would have to respond and then that’s the case that we were looking for.”

While the Fire will look for answers on how to break down teams that decide to bunker in defensively, the real interesting part will be how a team which was so hot can recover in just a few days. The Fire will get to return home and take on Vancouver on Saturday. The short rest after going to penalty kicks, coupled with the continued absences of David Accam and Dax McCarty, will test the Fire both physically and emotionally again.

Former Fire coach Bob Bradley was recently interviewed on the Beyond the Pitch podcast and had complimentary things to say about the Fire this year, but said this team needs tough tests.

“I do think they need to be tested more in more competitive games,” Bradley said. “I think that’s where you really find out how good they are.”

The Fire are on course to make the playoffs and have a good chance to make a deep run once there. Wednesday’s game was still fairly early in the U.S. Open Cup, but because of how big the game was to the hosts, it felt like a big game regardless.

The Fire’s next big game may not be played in front of more than 30,000 fans, but when it comes, maybe this loss in Cincinnati will be looked back at as one of those tests Bradley was referring to.

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.