Fire

Preview: Fire hope to get back on track against Vancouver Saturday on CSN+

Preview: Fire hope to get back on track against Vancouver Saturday on CSN+

Winning was starting to become a habit for the Chicago Fire this season.

Since Bastian Schweinsteiger’s arrival in April, the team took some time to coalesce but had turned into a well-tuned machine through May and much of June, going through 10 matches without a loss (8-0-2).

However, Wednesday’s setback in the U.S. Open Cup at Cincinnati presents a new challenge for the team. A team which had gotten used to winning now has to regroup after a long game and just a few days of rest.

The Fire’s response against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday at Toyota Park could be telling for what’s ahead this season. The match will be live on CSN+ (channel finder) with coverage beginning at 5:30 p.m.

The game in Cincinnati represented a second time in June that the Fire were unable to score against a team that was defending deep. Coach Veljko Paunovic brought up the comparison between the Cincinnati loss and the scoreless draw in Orlando on June 4 and said the team spoke about that during halftime in Ohio.

“What we learned is the importance of one play, one single play,” Paunovic said.

Vancouver may not defend in the same manner as a minor league team (Cincinnati) or a team playing with nine men (Orlando), but the Whitecaps (6-6-3, 21 points) do have one of the better defensive records in the league with 21 goals allowed in 15 matches.

“We just got to make sure we’re a little bit more clinical in front of goal,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “This game is cruel, it’s unfair so whenever you don’t put those chances in at the end you’re kind of wishing you had those back or what not. At that point it’s too late.”

The Fire (10-3-4, 34 points) have won seven straight at home, but have a few factors going against them on Saturday. For one, David Accam and Dax McCarty are still away on national team duty and will go up against each other on Saturday in a friendly between Ghana and the U.S. that should finish less than an hour before the Fire kickoff against Vancouver.

On top of that, the Fire will be playing for the third time in eight days, including the 120 minutes plus penalties they endured at Cincinnati. Most of the Fire’s regular starting lineup, including Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolic, played all 120 minutes.

The Whitecaps will be without standout center back Kendall Waston, who had surgery on his right hand a week ago, and midfielder Christian Bolanos is questionable with a shoulder sprain after sitting out the last two games.

Fire vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (10-3-4, 34 points), Vancouver (6-6-3, 21 points)

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.