Fire

What Saturday's win against Vancouver showed about the Fire

What Saturday's win against Vancouver showed about the Fire

The long faces from a few days before were gone. The Chicago Fire got back to business Saturday and showed they are capable of recovering from a setback.

Three days before Saturday’s match against Vancouver, the Fire took a loss for the first time in nearly two months and went all the way to penalty kicks while playing on turf.

Playing on short rest without two regular starters (David Accam and Dax McCarty) and coming off a long game on turf, the Fire picked up another home win and prevented a downward spiral.

It is fitting that the same day that the Fire showed this resilience in the form of a 4-0 win the team moved into the Supporters’ Shield lead after Toronto lost at Dallas.

“I think we shifted very well from the loss that we had,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “For us, it was very important to see it, that it’s possible to recover after 120 minutes and in just a couple of days be ready to perform like we performed today. Fantastic performance, fantastic mood. The mentality was great. That’s how the great teams play, but we still have to work a lot to be a great team.”

Last year, Paunovic would talk about how he believed better things were to come. Now he is trying to keep his team grounded. The Fire haven’t won anything yet this season, although a playoff berth seems nearly certain.

At the start of the season, most Fire fans would have been relatively satisfied with just making the playoffs to break the five-year drought. Hopes and expectations are higher now.

“I’m going to be the party breaker now and I want to stop the euphoria because I think it’s important to know that we still haven’t done anything,” Paunovic said. “It’s great to hear that our stats are improving... but we have to know that this is still half of the season, a long way to go.”

Throughout an MLS schedule there are plenty of games that can be explained with an asterisk of external factors altering a result. That could be a key player out of the lineup for injury, suspension or international duty. It could be short rest with cross-country travel. The Fire had all of that going against them on Saturday and beat a respectable Vancouver team by four goals and led by three goals inside 25 minutes.

“The main focus (Saturday) was just to make sure that we didn’t have any excuses in terms of playing a game Wednesday and going 120 minutes,” said midfielder Arturo Alvarez, who scored the third goal of the match. “It’s part of the profession. We got to make sure that we prepare ourselves for this game.”

The Fire now enter into what could be the toughest stretch of games on the entire schedule. Next is another midweek game at Portland with McCarty still with the national team and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s availability in question after he left Saturday’s game in the first half with an injury. Accam could return from playing with Ghana, but he sat out the last two games the Fire played on turf.

After that, the Fire will go on break while the Gold Cup begins and return with back-to-back road games at New York City FC, which has the third-best record in MLS, and Sporting Kansas City, which leads the Western Conference. Counting Portland, those three teams have a combined two losses in 27 home games this season.

Those games will be tough, but even if the Fire struggle in the rest of July, the team showed against Vancouver that it can respond well to adversity.

“That’s big, the reaction,” forward Michael de Leeuw said. “Because you know in the back of your head you know you played 120 minutes. You lost on penalties, that’s also mentally (tough). If you see how quick we scored the goals and we ended their chance to win because we were so dominant on the field. We were winning duels, creating a lot of chances. I think they also thought like OK, they played Wednesday 120 minutes and right away we killed them. That was a good feeling for us.”

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.