Michael de Leeuw got the elephant off his back

Michael de Leeuw got the elephant off his back

This season, Michael de Leeuw had been forced to earn credit for doing the dirty work because he didn’t have any goals to show for his play.

On Saturday that finally changed. The Chicago Fire forward scored his first goal of the season in a 4-0 win against Vancouver to end a drought that lasted through the first half of the regular season.

“Finally, you know?” de Leeuw said. “The monkey is finally off my back, but I think it was an elephant. I’m happy with my goal, but also with the points. It’s for me also good that I scored, but I think the most important thing was that we killed the game really soon.”

De Leeuw’s goal was the fourth in a comprehensive win. The Fire now have the best record in Major League Soccer following Toronto’s 3-1 loss at Dallas.

De Leeuw scored seven goals in 18 games last year on a bad Fire team, but moved to a different role this year to accommodate the league’s leading scorer, Nemanja Nikolic. He maintained a regular spot in the lineup due to his work rate and ability to have a positive influence on the game without scoring.

“So happy for him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We were talking about that for a long time now, how important his work for the team and how important his assists are for the team.”

De Leeuw, who was named the man of the match, assisted Nemanja Nikolic for the second goal of the match. That was de Leeuw’s fifth assist of the season.

In the second half, he had a pair of golden opportunities where it seemed certain that he would score. De Leeuw chipped goalkeeper David Ousted after an errant clearance, but a defender headed the ball off the line. Later, he missed an open shot in the box.

“I had some chances,” de Leeuw said. “One ball was headed out of the line. Also one chance that has to be a goal.

“I was feeling it today. Then at the end it’s good that you score a goal. Sometimes you just need that goal to open your tab, open your account and let’s hope that it keeps flowing now.”

Finally, de Leeuw scored on a give-and-go with Nikolic in the 84th minute. He took the shot with his first touch and slid it past Ousted.

He was mobbed by his teammates, who were clearly aware of de Leeuw finally getting a goal.

“That felt great, the support” he said. “I felt the guys were also feeling it, that I needed a goal. I felt the love from the guys and that’s great.”

Everything feels good when a team is winning, but this one had a little extra meaning to de Leeuw and his teammates.

“I think we’re all excited,” defender Matt Polster said. “He’s been working really hard. We need everyone scoring.”

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.