Notes from the rewatch: Trying to contain Sebastian Giovinco

Notes from the rewatch: Trying to contain Sebastian Giovinco

The Chicago Fire started a three-game road trip on Friday and it was yet another loss away from Toyota Park.

The loss at Toronto wasn't a shameful result because Toronto is one of the most talented teams in the league and has a former league MVP leading the way. Sebastian Giovinco torched the Fire for two goals and was upset he didn't get a third. Here's a look at Giovinco's game against the Fire and a couple other observations from the 16th road loss in 20 road matches for coach Veljko Paunovic.

Trying to contain Giovinco

The 2015 MLS MVP scored a pair of goals against the Fire and had chances for more. Heck, he was even angry when he got subbed out a couple minutes after scoring his second goal.

The Italian had 11 shots and six on target. As a team, the Fire had nine shots and one on target. Whatever the gameplan was on defending Giovinco, it didn't work. Those numbers are too much to allow and not expect him to score a goal or two.

Giovinco is so hard to defend because he can beat you with a powerful shot if you don't close him down, as happened on the first goal, and he can get by you with his quickness if you get too tight on him. He forced Michael Harrington into that tough choice on the first goal. Giovinco didn't move much in the lead up to the goal, but was allowed to receive the ball with a bit of space and was quick to turn and score with a hard right-footed shot.

Patience in midfield

The Fire's midfield has been revamped from a year ago with three quality players in central midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho all are solid passers. Having three players like this is very different from last year when the Fire were last in the league in time in possession.

Maybe the team needs some time to adjust to being able to play a different style, but this shouldn't be a long ball team like it was last year. The Fire can sit on the ball, be patient and control the tempo of the game. This is especially true when speedy winger David Accam doesn't start and also against a team like Toronto, which doesn't press high.

Without Accam in the lineup, the Fire don't have enough speed or technically adept players to play at pace. Forwards Nemanja Nikolic and Michael de Leeuw are best at finding space in the box and poaching goals, and a more deliberate buildup would play into that better.

Early on against Toronto, the Fire seemed to rush things and played at a higher tempo than necessary, which played into Toronto's hands. Only towards the end of the first half, after TFC led 2-0, did the Fire slow things down. There was a 19-pass sequence in the 41st minute with most of the passes coming in Toronto's half. The end result was a Juninho cross that was headed out for a corner kick. The Fire have shown at various times this season the ability to string passes together for extended periods. If the Fire had displayed that patience more consistently early on, they might not have been in a two-goal hole.

Check out this interaction with Schweinsteiger signaling to McCarty to play it wide to keep the ball. McCarty passes it forward and turns it over while Schweinsteiger looks up in frustration. Schweinsteiger was encouraging the route that wasn't going to lead to a chance, but would keep the Fire on the ball.

"Strange game"

After the match, Schweinsteiger called it a "strange game." Schweinsteiger's first road game may have been a bit of a "Welcome to MLS" moment for the German.

This isn't the pristine, manicured, high-profile game that Bayern Munich, the German national team and Manchester United play. This is MLS, where parity reigns and no team is as dominant as any of the three teams Schweinsteiger has played for.

Beyond that, MLS teams don't dominant games like Bayern or Man U strive to do. Toronto had a slight edge in possession early, but once the Reds went up two goals, they let the Fire control possession. This is something Schweinsteiger will have to get used to.

The Fire also weren't happy with either of the calls that led to the set pieces that Toronto scored on. Michael de Leeuw wanted a foul to go the other way in the 31st minute. Giovinco's ensuing free kick forced a corner kick and Toronto scored on that corner. Then in the 81st minute every Fire player in the vicinity was upset with the foul that went against Johan Kappelhof and led to Giovinco's free kick goal.

There's also the handball that got called in the 72nd minute against Justin Morrow, but was incorrectly called outside the box for a free kick. The Fire didn't have a shot on goal yet and were down two goals so a penalty kick probably wouldn't have turned things around, but would have made it more interesting down the stretch.

Welcome to MLS, Bastian. It sure can be strange.

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.