Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Michael de Leeuw's influential game and Vancouver's missed early chances

Notes from the rewatch: Michael de Leeuw's influential game and Vancouver's missed early chances

A lot of factors seemed to be going against the Chicago Fire when they faced Vancouver on Saturday, but it turned into another dominant home win.

The Fire were coming off a long game on turf midweek and were without two standout starters, David Accam and Dax McCarty. Despite that, Nemanja Nikolic returned to his goal-scoring ways and the Fire routed the Whitecaps.

Here’s a look at how Vancouver nearly changed the entire match with a pair of early chances, Michael de Leeuw’s big game and how the Fire have turned into a possession team.

Vancouver’s early chances

It didn’t take long for these plays to be forgotten considering what happened later in the first half, but Vancouver came close to taking an early lead twice in the opening 10 minutes.

A Cristian Techera free kick whizzed in front of goal without anyone connecting with it in just the second minute. In the sixth minute Christian Bolanos smacked a low shot from distance that beat Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson and slammed off the post.

These were early warning signs that the Fire may not be recovered from the long midweek game and loss in Cincinnati, but the game didn’t play out that way. Had the Whitecaps converted one of these early changes, things could have been very different.

Michael de Leeuw’s big game

The big story for the Dutch forward was that he finally scored on Saturday. Even without the goal, he once again was valuable in other ways.

He had a nice turn and through ball to Nikolic in the 11th minute, but Nikolic couldn’t control the ball. Seven minutes later the duo connected again and this time Nikolic finished. De Leeuw won a loose ball and gave it to Nikolic, who held off a defender and beat goalkeeper David Ousted.

The two forwards connected frequently on Saturday. De Leeuw nearly assisted Nikolic again to give him his hat trick in the 83rd minute, but Nikolic’s shot went inches wide of the post. When de Leeuw finally scored, it was Nikolic who gave him the assist as part of a give-and-go.

De Leeuw finished with four shots, three of which were on target. He admitted after the game that the one that wasn’t on target, an 80th minute effort where he cut onto his right foot and shanked a shot wide, should have been a goal.

Nikolic and de Leeuw showed good chemistry up top and if de Leeuw can start scoring now that he is on the board, this could be another way the Fire’s attack can hurt teams.

Fire control possession again

This isn’t specifically about Saturday’s match, but the Fire once again controlled possession. They did so without Dax McCarty playing in midfield and with Bastian Schweinsteiger getting subbed out late in the first half due to injury.

The Fire finished with 60.7 percent possession. It is the sixth time in the past eight matches that the Fire have had a majority of the possession.

The improvement in possession isn’t a surprise considering the additions of McCarty, Juninho and Schweinsteiger to central midfield, but considering how bad the Fire were in that area last year (dead last in the league averaging a 43 percent share of possession) it is still quite staggering. Vancouver is last in the league this year in possession so the Fire's dominance on Saturday lined up with what the teams have been doing lately.

Schweinsteiger highlight of the week

Finally, an obligatory gif of Schweinsteiger turning out of traffic with two players on him.

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.