Notes from the rewatch: Why can't the Fire score against bunkering defenses?

Notes from the rewatch: Why can't the Fire score against bunkering defenses?

It’s no secret that the Chicago Fire have struggled against teams that bunker in defensively and wait for the Fire to come to them.

Saturday’s loss at New York City FC was another example of that. The hosts were at full strength for less than 11 minutes and still outscored the Fire after Yangel Herrera was sent off for a second yellow card.

Coach Veljko Paunovic is well aware of his team’s struggles against the defensive strategy New York utilized. He has spoken about it, but there hasn’t been any improvement.

Here’s a look at what went wrong for the Fire in The Bronx.

How the game played at full strength

This game was yet another missed opportunity to see how the Fire stack up against a quality opponent. Add this game to that list along with the time FC Dallas sent its B-team to Toyota Park and when Orlando suffered two red cards when the Fire played in Florida.

The Fire looked a bit sluggish to start. NYCFC had the early possession edge and should have had a penalty kick called after Bastian Schweinsteiger was stripped of the ball and Johan Kappelhof tackled Herrera in the box, but got away with it. It would have been interesting to see if the Fire could adjust, but things obviously changed after the red card.

The rest of the first half

Despite turning the man advantage into solid control of the possession battle, the Fire weren’t turning the possession into shots in the first half.

The Fire managed just three shots in the first half and all three were from well outside the box. One of them probably wasn’t even a shot. Johan Kappelhof took a low drive just before halftime that was deflected by a defender and forced Sean Johnson into a tough save.

The Fire spent too much time cycling the ball around and not making an incisive pass. As has been the case in the two previous games that were similar to this (at Orlando and the Open Cup loss in Cincinnati), Dax McCarty was not there for the Fire. McCarty’s ability to quickly push the ball forward via a pass is something the team has continued to miss without him. The Fire have looked competitive, and at times good, without him, but the dropoff from how the Fire play with him as opposed to without him builds a strong argument that McCarty is the team MVP.

The Fire settled for too many crosses without McCarty’s forward passing ability. They are credited with completing just one cross in seven attempts in the first half. It didn’t help that Brandon Vincent picked up an injury in warmups and was replaced by Michael Harrington in the lineup. On top of that, Schweinsteiger was uncharacteristically sloppy.

Things changed when David Accam entered

It’s not clear why David Accam didn’t start for the Fire, but they definitely played better once he entered as a halftime sub for Luis Solignac.

Of course, Accam’s entrance also coincided with the Fire’s defense going AWOL for the first five minutes of the half, but he did bring the team back into the game with a miraculous long-range strike that went in off the bottom of the crossbar.

Accam didn’t complete many passes (9 for 14), but he was credited with five successful dribbles. That was more than the rest of the team combined in the second half.

His ability to take players on in one-on-one situations was an important asset with NYCFC defending with numbers and conceding possession to the Fire. Paunovic brought on young players Djordje Mihailovic and Daniel Johnson, both offensively-minded players who are willing to take risks to create chances.

The Fire cranked up the heat with 20 shots in the second half, including 11 from the 76th minute on, but it wasn’t enough to break down NYCFC’s defense.

Paunovic and Co. will have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to score against teams that play the way New York did on Saturday.

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.