Preview: Fire close out homestand against New England Saturday on CSN+

Preview: Fire close out homestand against New England Saturday on CSN+

With a tough three-game road trip staring ahead at them, the Chicago Fire know Saturday's home game against New England is a crucial early season game.

Not only is it important because it is against an Eastern Conference opponent and the playoff race is shaping up to be incredibly tight, but the Fire need to get points now while they are at home before embarking on a road trip at perenially tough teams in Toronto, the New York Red Bulls and LA.

"You always want to win your home games, especially we had three in a row and we're almost through those and obviously then a big road trip coming up so you always want to win your home games," midfielder Dax McCarty said.

Saturday's game against New England will be live on CSN+ with coverage beginning with Fire Pregame Live at 3:30 p.m.

The match will be the third straight home game against an Eastern Conference opponent for the Fire. The first two were a 2-2 draw against Montreal and a 1-0 win against Columbus.

"I was very disappointed with how we lost two points in the Montreal game," McCarty said. "I thought our performance warranted three points, but we didn't finish and we didn't close the game out well and we didn't defend well. I thought (against Columbus) we learned from our mistakes."

Even after losing to the Fire, Columbus still leads the conference with a 3-2-1 record (10 points). The Fire (2-1-2, 8 points) are two points behind, tied with Atlanta for third. New England (2-2-1, 7 points) is one of five teams with seven points.

It's early, but the Fire weren't really in the playoff race or conversation at all in 2016. Coach Veljko Paunovic talked up the team's improvement, bolstered by additions like McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

"We are not afraid of saying that we are getting better," Paunovic said. "We also know that we still have to work a lot and become the team that everyone in Chicago wants to root for and everyone is supporting and everyone wants to watch. That's what we are working on. Hopefully we can succeed this year. We are on that path. I am 100 percent sure, but we still have to work."

The Fire enter Saturday's game with Luis Solignac (left knee) and David Accam (right hip) listed as questionable. Matt Polster has been out since the preseason, but worked his way back to full training this week and could make his season debut.

Polster will join an already crowded central midfield. Juninho returns from red card suspension and Schweinsteiger and McCarty each have a man of the match to their names in the last two games.

"I think for the most part I've started the season off pretty well, pretty solid," McCarty said. "I'm happy with how I started the season, but I think there's always room to grow.

"I still have another level I think I can get to and I think this team can get to. It's important to recover and get ready for New England."

Meanwhile, New England has a clean injury report. The Revolution have plenty of talented attacking players in Lee Nguyen (3 goals, 1 assist), Kei Kamara (2 goals), Juan Agudelo (3 goals) and Diego Fagundez (2 assists). That will test the Fire's defense. It also increases the importance of the midfield keeping pressure off the defense, like McCarty alluded to.

Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.


When: Coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. Saturday with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (2-1-2, 8 points), New England (2-2-1, 7 points)

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.