Paunovic era starts slowly as Fire drop opener to NYCFC


Paunovic era starts slowly as Fire drop opener to NYCFC

The Veljko Paunovic era started with a thud on Sunday, but it was a thrilling thud if there is such a thing.

New York City FC beat the Chicago Fire 4-3 in a season opener that kept producing goals.

The Fire's new-look defense struggled to prevent chances and New York capitalized. All four defenders and goalkeeper Matt Lampson were making their Fire debuts and that unit didn't start well.

Even before kickoff Paunovic made his mark by choosing Lampson in goal ahead of Sean Johnson. Lampson struggled with NYCFC's press and there were some miscommunication errors in defense. Some of that should be expected with all new players, but it still wasn't a good debut by any definition.

"I think he did his best," Paunovic said of Lampson. "I think he worked for the team. He tried to develop the plan that we prepared. We are happy with him."

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Thomas McNamara scored the first goal of the Major League Soccer season with a beautiful curling effort from outside the box in the 10th minute. It was a great shot that left Lampson no chance, but McNamara was given plenty of space by the Fire midfield in a good position.

"I thought when we were able to switch the ball we were able to expose them a little bit and give us a little bit of an advantage," McNamara said.

The Fire almost answered immediately with David Accam springing Gilberto behind the NYCFC defense, but Gilberto went down in the box and didn't draw a call.

In the 19th minute the Fire did get their equalizer through Razvan Cocis. Arturo Alvarez hit a chipped pass over the defense and Cocis made a deep run to find himself all  alone in the box. He took his time and finished to level the match at 1-1.

The goals just kept coming with Tony Taylor putting the visitors back on top in the 29th minute. He scored with a nice turn and finish in the box after Michael Harrington and Joao Meira collided while trying to clear the ball.

Khiry Shelton doubled the New York City lead by burning Brandon Vincent on the right wing and dancing past Lampson in the 36th minute.

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Paunovic made another key decision at halftime, taking off Gilberto for Jonathan Campbell. On paper, taking off a forward and putting in a central defender while down two goals at halftime seems like a strange move. However, it seemed to work initially.

From the start of the half Accam and Kennedy Igboananike created all kinds of problems for the New York City defense. In the 49th minute, Accam forced a turnover and fed the ball across to Igboananike, who scored to get the Fire back in it and re-energize the crowd.

Then Mix Diskerud volleyed home the sixth goal of the match in the 63rd minute off a cross from McNamara.

Accam got the Fire back within one with a penalty kick in the 71st after a corner kick resulted in a handball in the box. That would be the end to the goals though.

"This is just the beginning of our philosophy," Accam said. "We have young players and they'll learn and we'll try to improve for the next games."

In all, nine players debuted for the Fire. Six starters, Lampson, all four defenders (Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Michael Harrington and Brandon Vincent) and Arturo Alvarez, and subs Campbell and Rodrigo Ramos and Joey Calistri.

As an additional note, John Goossens was unavailable while still awaiting his visa. On the pregame show on CSN, Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said Goossens is flying back to the Netherlands this week to finish the process, but Rodriguez said he wasn't certain Goossens would be available for Friday's match at Orlando City.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason


Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.