Notes from the rewatch: The lack of a serious rally


Notes from the rewatch: The lack of a serious rally

The Fire have been doing a lot of losing lately, but Saturday's loss to Minnesota was another level of disappointment.

Considering the match was at Toyota Park and Minnesota was winless on the road, the Fire's 2-1 defeat was almost undoubtedly the worst result of the season.

There isn't much new to say about the game either. The Fire made defensive lapses that have occurred more frequently of late and struggled to score against a team willing to defend deep in its own zone.

Djordje Mihailovic made his second start, Bastian Schweinsteiger tried to be more influential and the Fire's second-half rally ended up not being much of a rally. Here's a look at all three of those things.

Mihailovic's second start

In Mihailovic's first start in Montreal, he seemed to have a hard time getting involved. He drifted around the midfield without finding a consistent purpose or role within the attack. While the 18-year-old still wasn't a focal point in his 45 minutes on the field against the Loons, Mihailovic was more active.

He was credited with three shots, all of which were blocked. Only Nemanja Nikolic tallied as many shots for the Fire in the first half.

There were a pair of occasions when Mihailovic went down looking for a foul, but could have fought through and maybe had another chance. Namely in the 11th minute, Mihailovic had a shot blocked but was able to win it back by continuing to pressure the ball. He then played a 1-2 with David Accam at the edge of the box, but went down just outside the box and didn't get the call.

The sequence showed good aggression by Mihailovic to get a shot off, his willingness to work hard defensively to win balls in advanced positions and his technical ability to play a 1-2 with Accam in tight space. However, the final product wasn't there.

By design, Mihailovic won't be a major part of the Fire's attack as long as Dax McCarty and Schweinsteiger are on the field. Everything goes through those two at first so Mihailovic has to work to get in positions to be more impactful. Mihailovic completed 21 of 25 passes and drifted all over the field to get on the ball.

Schweinsteiger's more attacking role

Given how the German superstar has been used more recently, it's easy to forget that when Schweinsteiger arrived in Chicago, coach Veljko Paunovic said he wanted to use Schweinsteiger as high up the field as possible. That lasted for a little while, but Schweinsteiger has dropped deeper and deeper the past few months, sometimes even being used as a sweeper.

Part of that more recently is likely due to injuries to Fire defenders. Schweinsteiger playing deeper can improve the organization of the defense while the personnel has been thrown into some chaos.

Against Toronto at times and throughout the match against Minnesota, Schweinsteiger played in a more attacking role than he has in a while. It wasn't due to the Fire trailing either. He was very active from the start of the match, completing all 11 of his passes in the first 10 minutes and starting a pair of attacks with quality passes.

Nearly two-thirds of Schweinsteiger's passes (40 of 62) were attempted from beyond midfield and he assisted on the Fire's only goal. He tended to drift to one side or the other while McCarty continued to sit deeper and patrol the middle.

Also of some note is that Schweinsteiger had two shots. After his laser last week against Toronto brought the Fire back into that match, he had a couple more cracks against Minnesota. The interesting part is that in his first five games with the Fire, Schweinsteiger totaled 12 shots. In the 17 games since, Schweinsteiger has combined for 11 shots.

Schweinsteiger doesn't need to be taking shots to make a difference in a match, but that stat is telling in how he has been used more recently.

The lack of a rally

It didn't take a second viewing to recognize the Fire struggled to put shots on target against Minnesota. The Fire had just four, and two of those came before Minnesota took the lead in the 36th minute.

Typically teams put more pressure on goal when losing, especially in cases like Saturday when the team chasing the game has a much better record and is at home. The Fire had nearly 58 percent of the possession and did total 20 shots, an impressive number, but few of those shots seemed likely to score.

"If it takes you 25 shots to score one goal, that’s not a recipe for winning many games,” McCarty said after the match.

The Fire simply couldn't break down Minnesota's defense. The only goal came on a counter. The ball was near the Fire's endline and 12 seconds left it was in Minnesota's net after Schweinsteiger had sprung David Accam for the goal.

There's nothing wrong with scoring on counters, but it further shows the Fire's struggles in the last month or so to score through extended stretches of possession like the team was doing earlier in the year.

Even more concerning is that after Accam's goal, Minnesota actually had a majority of possession. Instead of showing nerves or a lack of confidence, the Loons were able to gain more control of the ball to run out the clock and limited the Fire's opportunities. The Fire's only shot after Accam got the score to 2-1 was Michael de Leeuw's impressive, if not desperate, bicycle attempt in the 89th minute.

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.