Fire

Preview: Fire try to keep top MLS record at shorthanded Timbers on CSN

Preview: Fire try to keep top MLS record at shorthanded Timbers on CSN

The Chicago Fire are enduring a busy stretch of games and are missing key players, but they won’t get any sympathy from the Portland Timbers.

The Fire are without Dax McCarty, who is with the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup, David Accam is returning from international duty and Bastian Schweinsteiger is listed as questionable after leaving in the first half of Saturday’s 4-0 win against Vancouver. While all three are keys starters for the Fire, that list is significantly shorter than the players the Timbers will be missing.

The Timbers won’t be able to field a full 18-man matchday roster due to injuries and players away for the Gold Cup. Regular starters Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell and depth players Jack Barmby and Amobi Okugo are out with injuries. Starting right back Alvas Powell and frequent attacking substitute Darren Mattocks are with Jamaica and starting central midfielder David Guzman is with Costa Rica for the Gold Cup.

The Fire will try to take advantage of Portland's lack of depth when they travel to Providence Park Wednesday night. The game will be live on CSN with an hour and a half of Fire coverage leading into the match. First up is a new episode of Chicago Fire Weekly at 8 p.m. and then Fire Pregame Live is on at 9 p.m.

It will be the Fire’s fourth game in 12 days and will cap off a busy stretch of seven games in 26 days for the host Timbers. Portland is winless in five straight, including a loss to Seattle in the U.S. Open Cup, but is 5-1-3 at home this season.

“Portland is going to be a great test for us and we have to keep the mentality that we have now and play the way we were playing so far,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said.

Portland’s depth is razor thin, but the Timbers will be able to send out almost all of the starting lineup that earned a quality road draw at Sporting Kansas City on Saturday.

The Fire took over the best record in MLS on Saturday, but have a tough stretch of games coming up to hold onto that spot. After Wednesday, the Fire will go on break for the Gold Cup group stage, but will return July 22 with a game at New York City FC and a trip to Sporting KC the next week.

“We just have to keep playing the way we’re playing with confidence,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “It’s a lot of games left, but we got to keep doing the same thing.”

Chicago Fire at Portland Timbers

Where: Providence Park, Portland, Ore.

TV: CSN Chicago

When: Coverage starts at 9 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live (a new episode of Chicago Fire Weekly starts at 8 p.m.)

Records: Fire (11-3-4, 37 points), Timbers (7-7-5, 26 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.