Fire

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire played without Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire played without Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger

Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger have been the guiding forces of the Fire's turnaround this season, but neither were available for Wednesday's match in Portland.

McCarty missed his second straight game while with the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup. Schweinsteiger didn't travel after suffering a hip injury in the previous game against Vancouver.

Coach Veljko Paunovic had to make some adjustments and the team survived a late flurry of chances in and around the box in the final half hour.

What the Fire look like without Dax and Basti

Given how important the Fire's typical midfield duo has been this season, it wasn't clear how the team would line up or play without either of them. Juninho has stepped in when one has been missing and the team has done fine, but with both gone things were going to be different.

Juninho was the lone defensive central midfielder. Nemanja Nikolic was joined up top by David Accam, who played as more of an outright forward than usual. Joining Juninho in the midfield was Luis Solignac, Michael de Leeuw and Arturo Alvarez, who all dropped back and defended more than usual. The formation was a 4-4-2, more specifically a 4-1-3-2 with how Juninho was the lone defensive mid and the other three attacking more.

Portland striker Fanendo Adi is a big body and one of the best at his position in the league. He gave the Fire problems in the middle, racking up seven shots. At New England on June 17, Paunovic used Schweinsteiger as a sweeper to mark another big striker in Kei Kamara. That worked fairly well on that day, but that option wasn't available to Paunovic.

Whether it's been McCarty or Schweinsteiger, one of those two has dropped between the two center backs to build possession from the back. Juninho is a sound passer, but that's not really his game. He is a shuttler, who moves the ball along simply, but he didn't have anyone to move the ball along to in the same way McCarty and Schweinsteiger would.

The Fire still tried to build out of the back, but had a few dangerous turnovers while trying to do so. Both the personnel and the formation made the Fire's typical style very difficult to play. Portland was aggressive in pressing and had a majority of the possession.

It didn't help that Matt Polster went down with an injury in the first half. Being forced to sub him out and bring on Drew Conner burned a sub, killing flexibility for later in the match, and meant another central midfield option (Conner) was now out of play because he was playing at right back.

Things changed when Jonathan Campbell was brought into the match in the second half and the formation shifted. More on that below.

Portland's second half assault

The match started fairly slowly with neither team creating many chances in the first 20 minutes. Portland had three shots, one on target, in the first 20 minutes. The Fire's first shot wasn't actually a shot. Alvarez's goal in the 34th minute was a cross that found the net thanks to Nikolic crashing in front to freeze goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.

With the match tied 1-1 after halftime, Portland didn't manage a shot in the first 10 minutes of the half. The Timbers quickly ramped things up, especially after Brandon Vincent gave the Fire the lead in the 61st minute.

When Campbell entered in the 65th minute, Paunovic was hoping to hold onto the 2-1 lead and get the win. Portland was controlling midfield and had turned up the pressure in the previous 10 minutes.

Campbell led the Fire in minutes in 2016, but has come on as a sub in his last nine league appearances. It's something that Paunovic has used regularly to help close out games, but it didn't work in Portland.

The Fire moved to a 5-3-2 formation with Campbell and then it changed to somewhat of a 5-4-1 with Accam dropping into midfield more often. Regardless of the nuance of how the players were positioned, the Fire were sitting way too deep and couldn't relieve pressure.

Portland's game-tying goal, which came five minutes after Campbell subbed on, was a combination of positioning errors and confusion with Joao Meira, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. Meira stepped up to close on the ball and Juninho and de Leeuw both closed on Diego Valeri, leaving Sebastian Blanco open in the box. In a four defender set Meira wouldn't have been in that position, but under normal circumstances de Leeuw wouldn't be asked to do this much defending anyway.

The Timbers racked up 11 shots in the 30-plus minutes after Vincent's goal gave the Fire the lead. The Fire were lucky to escape with a draw, and they may have known it. Nikolic put his arms in the air in a mild celebration after the final whistle blew.

Fun with gifs

De Leeuw was somewhat involved in Portland's second goal, but he did make a nice tackle late in the first half on Blanco. This is not your average striker's tackle.

Also here's Accam dribbling through and then burning four Portland players:

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.