Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Sloppy play leads to Fire loss

Notes from the rewatch: Sloppy play leads to Fire loss

The Chicago Fire entered Saturday's match in Columbus with a number of minor injury concerns and players who missed training time during the week.

The only one who didn't end up playing was Juninho, but the Fire showed signs of fatigue towards the end of the game. The Crew scored twice in the final 20 minutes and could have had more if they were more efficient in front of goal.

On top of that, sloppy mistakes killed the Fire in Ohio. All three Columbus goals were a direct result of turnovers by the Fire.

The Fire's sloppy play

After the loss, Michael de Leeuw had a pair of quotes which summed up why the Fire lost:

"I think we played well in certain parts of the game but most of all we were very sloppy. I think we had 20 unforced errors and at the end, the goals came from that, also the third goal was a mistake for me."

"We have to play better when we play possession. Just hold the ball and not make stupid mistakes beacuse Columbus profited big because of that."

Dax McCarty uncharacteristically had a pair of passes in the Fire's defensive half that were intercepted inside the first dozen minutes. Johan Kappelhof had a back header towards Matt Lampson that Artur got in the way of and had a free header on goal as a result in the fifth minute. That apparently was a sign of things to come.

Matt Polster had a pass intercepted in his own half, which led to Columbus playing in transition and scoring the first goal. The goal itself was a bit lucky with Artur's long shot being deflected right into the path of a wide open Kekuta Manneh in front of goal, but Artur's chance came from the turnover.

In the second half, Polster again was involved in a Columbus goal. His pass at midfield was intercepted, but his killer mistake was pressing the ball soon after and not winning it.

With Polster pressing, he left Columbus' left wing free to attack. That caused a chain reaction in the Fire's defense. Kappelhof had to move from his central position to close down Waylon Francis with the ball on the wing. Joao Meira slid a bit more towards the right to cover Kappelhof and mark striker Ola Kamara. Patrick Doody, the left back playing higher up the field than Kappelhof and Meira, had to track back to mark Justin Meram. Doody couldn't make up enough ground on Meram and he scored the goal.

The clip below starts right as Polster is stepping forward to pressure the ball after his turnover and fouls Cristian Martinez. To add insult to injury, Polster gets a yellow card for the foul on Martinez, a challenge he probably shouldn't have tried to make in the first place.

The third Crew goal, as de Leeuw admitted, was a result of his back pass that was intercepted. The turnover led to a breakaway for Kamara, which led to a penalty kick.

The Fire were able to win the possession battle on the road against a team in Columbus which is one of a handful of MLS teams that regularly try to hold a majority of the possession. That is a good sign that the Fire can impose their will on the game and control the tempo against even good possession teams. However, the Fire's numerous turnovers and inability to cover in transition was costly.

Lack of central attack

Nemanja Nikolic is one of the best finishers in MLS. That's why he has 16 goals so far this season.

However, he has not shown a regular ability to create his own chances. He is great at finding ways to get open near the goal, being in the right place at the right time and being efficient with the chances he gets. He is not great at much else.

So when Nikolic isn't scoring, and he hasn't in five matches, it's at least partially due to the lack of chances the team is creating for him. Nikolic hadn't gone more than two matches without scoring and hadn't gone consecutives games without scoring since Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived before this drought.

Teams are starting to learn the Fire's weakness in attack, which is to clog the central areas and force them wide. New England did that last week and Patrick Doody burned them with three assists. If Doody or Polster aren't going to create chances, the Fire's attack is suddenly in trouble.

Check out this chart, courtesy MLSsoccer.com, of the Fire's key passes, passes which led to shots. McCarty's assist is in blue. Passes were taken from the player's number and were received at the arrows.

Passes that led to Fire shots came from a corner, three crosses, two passes far from the goal, two backwards passes from outside the box and McCarty's chip into the box from distance, which was similar to a cross.

For comparison, check out the Crew's key passes. There are more forward passes from advanced central areas. Even the backward pass from Kamara (No. 11) comes from well inside the box.

This has become the Fire's weakness as more teams have seen how to successfully defend the Fire. Not every team in MLS can defend well enough to stop the Fire, even if they successfully force them wide. New England is a perfect example. The Revolution limited central chances but still gave up four goals to the Fire. The better defensive teams can pull it off though and it's up to Veljko Paunovic to find a way to adjust.

With all this said, everything could have been very different had de Leeuw buried this chance to tie the match in the 79th minute.

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.