Fire

Things are getting tight for the Fire in the Eastern Conference

Things are getting tight for the Fire in the Eastern Conference

It may not be time to start ringing alarm bells, but the Eastern Conference race is not looking as pleasant for the Chicago Fire as it did a few weeks ago.

The Fire lost 3-1 in Columbus on Saturday. It was the Fire's third straight loss on the road.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Toronto FC erupted in the second half for a 4-1 win against Portland. TFC (13-3-8, 47 points) is now six points clear of the second-place Fire (12-6-5, 41 points). On top of that, New York City FC (12-7-4, 40 points) is just one point behind the Fire, and could move into second place with a win at LA later tonight, and the New York Red Bulls (12-9-2, 38 points) beat Orlando to move within three points of the Fire.

While Toronto has appeared to be the class of the league throughout the season and is likely to hold onto the top spot, securing the second spot at the minimum will be important for the Fire. The top two teams in each conference avoid having to play in a first-round playoff game and move straight into the conference semifinals.

Six of the Fire's final 11 regular season games will be at Toyota Park where the team has been unbeatable. The Fire are 10-0-1 at Toyota Park and the first team in the league to reach 10 wins at home.

Next up though is another road game. The Fire head to Montreal, which just beat Philadelphia for a second straight win, on Wednesday. The Impact (8-8-6, 30 points) still have some chasing to do, but are getting back in the playoff race.

After that, the Fire's home record will be put to the test with Toronto coming to town next weekend. A win at Montreal would mean a win against TFC would put the Fire back into a tie for the Supporters' Shield race. On the flipside, if the Fire don't win in Montreal, a Toronto win at Toyota Park could be a near-decisive blow for the Reds in that same race.

The Fire's playoff status isn't in doubt, but its position in the playoffs is. Despite Michael de Leeuw's early goal, his third in six games, the Fire allowed an equalizer five minutes later and couldn't regain the lead in the second half.

The Fire had a majority of the possession throughout the match and finished at 58 percent, but again struggled to create chances in the final third. The Fire had just three shots on target.

Columbus (11-12-2, 35 points) took the lead with a pretty Justin Meram outside-of-the-foot finish in the 73rd minute and the Fire collapsed after. The Crew had more chances for a third goal than the Fire did a second and eventually the third came when Ola Kamara was taken down in the box by goalkeeper Matt Lampson, making his first start in Columbus as an opposing player. Kamara converted the penalty in the 88th minute to essentially end the game.

After a number of injury scares earlier in the week, the only regular to not start was Juninho. Johan Kappelhof and Dax McCarty played the full 90 minutes after being limited in practice this week.

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.