Notes from the rewatch: The returns of Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam


Notes from the rewatch: The returns of Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam

What was a big game on paper never quite felt like one on the field.

The Fire and New York City FC played to a 1-1 draw on Saturday and neither team hit fifth gear. That likely has to due with the fact that it was the third game in eight days for both teams and key players were coming back from injury on both sides.

David Villa didn't played in New York's trip to Montreal on Wednesday and David Accam and Bastian Schweinsteiger came back from injury for the Fire, but both played limited minutes.

With a combined five shots on target, neither team created a ton of chances.

"It wasn’t really back and forth action, but two good teams squaring off," NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. "It was good. I think it was a fair result."

The Fire began the match with a 30-pass sequence that lasted 105 seconds. It led to nothing, but it's worth a mention. NYCFC attempted and completed just one pass in the first three minutes.

Both teams had stretches of dominant play, but neither peppered the opposing goal much. NYCFC picked it up a notch a few minutes after the Fire took the lead and got the equalizer via Villa just before halftime. There was a short surge from the Fire a few minutes after Schweinsteiger entered, but it was New York which was putting on the pressure in the final 10 minutes. There wasn’t the urgency shown by the Fire to get a win the team really needed in the race for playoff seeding, but that also may have been due to fatigue from three games in eight days.

While the draw didn't exactly change anything in the standings, the match did give a glimpse of how Accam and Schweinsteiger are doing in their recoveries and showed the first look of how life after Michael de Leeuw could be for the Fire.

Accam's unusual stint

Accam didn't start the match even after not traveling to San Jose. His hip injury is something that has bothered him for weeks and it sounds like it will be an on and off issue for the rest of the season.

So Accam started off the bench, which allowed coach Veljko Paunovic to start the same attacking four he did in the 4-1 win in San Jose. When de Leeuw went down with an injury midway through the first half it forced Accam to enter earlier than Paunovic had planned. It's not often players who sub into a match also have to sub out, but that's what happened with Accam.

He still showed off his speed to beat or get around defenders on a few occasions, even in the second half, but Accam didn't take any shots. He completed just seven of 14 passes in his 56 minutes on the field.

After the game, Paunovic said Accam played more than they had planned for him to.

"We wanted to give some time to recover and rest and get ready for the coming games and the playoff push," Paunovic said.

It's not clear if that means Accam will stay on a limited workload heading into the playoffs or if he will be 100 percent after the week off the team has, but his injury will be something to watch the rest of the season.

Schweinsteiger's rust

Schweinsteiger had missed the previous four matches and played 19 minutes on Saturday. He completed four of six passes and lacked his typical sharpness on the ball, which isn't a surprise.

Afterwards, he said he wasn't yet 100 percent. Like Accam, the week off should be important for the German.

He played in a more advanced role in his short time on the field, filling the spot Michael de Leeuw typically plays. Perhaps that will be an option going forward with de Leeuw hurt.

Life without de Leeuw

Speaking of de Leeuw, Saturday's match showed a few possibilities for how the Fire will play without him. No one on the Fire does what de Leeuw does. He has played underneath Nemanja Nikolic and leads the team with eight assists.

His runs, positioning and knack for creating chances for his teammates out of nowhere will be tough to replace, especially for a team which has had trouble creating chances in the past couple months. Beyond his ability, there aren't others on the team who can play that withdrawn striker/attacking midfield role as comfortably as de Leeuw did.

When Accam replaced him in the 30th minute, Paunovic had him play at striker for a few minutes to get loose without strenuous defensive responsibilities. After that, Accam and Luis Solignac both had stints on the left wing with Arturo Alvarez staying on the right wing.

Once Schweinsteiger entered he played de Leeuw's spot in an effort to limit his defensive responsibilities post-injury and allow him to influence the attack more. Schweinsteiger flanked by some combination of Accam, Solignac and Alvarez could still be dangerous. The problem then is how the Fire fill the other deep midfield role next to Dax McCarty.

Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic have both filled in while Juninho remains out with a knee injury. If Juninho is ready to start in two weeks, Schweinsteiger taking de Leeuw's spot makes sense. If not, that may force a formational shift from the Fire with de Leeuw out.

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.