Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

In the Fire’s resurgent 2017 season, the team earned its playoff berth on the back of a lot of dominant wins against bad or mediocre teams mixed in with some impressive wins against good teams from the Western Conference.

But one thing is missing: wins against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The field of six teams is all but set, with Columbus clinching on Saturday to join the Fire, Toronto, Atlanta and Saturday’s opponent, New York City FC. The New York Red Bulls are limping into the playoffs, but still have a firm grasp on the final playoff spot.

After Saturday’s 1-1 draw against NYCFC, the Fire’s record against those five teams is now 2-6-3. Each of the five teams has at least one win against the Fire and top seed Toronto has two.

Those two wins have questionable value as well. The Fire beat Columbus came in April. The Crew made changes this summer and are currently on an eight-game unbeaten streak. The Fire also beat Atlanta when its two best players, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, came off the bench.

So with the MLS playoffs just under a month away, Saturday’s game was a chance to not only make up ground in the standings, but to prove the Fire can beat good teams in the East. The Fire hold an impressive 5-1-1 record against the eight teams jockeying for playoff spots in the Western Conference, but those teams aren’t in the Fire’s immediate playoff future.

“Obviously we don’t feel good about the tie,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have two games more. We will build up the mood that will prepare the team now. We will first recover and we’ll look towards winning all six points. Obviously we know that’s easy and simple to say, but it’s not easy to do, but we are confident in our team.”

Paunovic opened his press conference on a somber note by speaking about Michael de Leeuw’s injury. The Dutch forward suffered a knee injury, was helped off the field by two trainers and was subbed off in the 30th minute. Paunovic said it “doesn’t look good,” but the team is awaiting MRI results to see the extent of the damage. If it is significant enough to keep him out of the playoffs, that would be a blow to the team.

The Fire remain in fourth place after Saturday’s games. Atlanta, which is in third-place with one more point and one more game remaining than the Fire, drew at New England. Columbus won to move within two points of the Fire for the final hosting spot in the first round, but the Crew’s final two games are on the road so the Fire appear likely to finish fourth.

[RELATED: See the latest standings and scenarios in the playoff tracker]

Despite having clinched, no one on the team was thinking about feeling relaxed with that accomplishment out of the way.

“It took a little bit of pressure off, but we’re still focusing on getting a top spot in the conference,” midfielder Djordje Mihailovic said. “Maybe second place, third place. That’s what we’re going for. There’s no letting off any bit.”

The Fire next play on Oct. 15 after MLS takes a break for international matches. Philadelphia comes to Toyota Park for the final regular season home match and the following Sunday the Fire play at Houston.

“I think we got to get back onto the game we did in San Jose,” forward Luis Solignac said of the team's 4-1 win on the road three days before. “It was a perfect example to build on. Be sharp with a killer instinct in the final third, take the chances and I think that’s our focus. Keep organized and keep our minds in the right way that it’s win these two games to get in the best shape to the playoffs.”

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.