Dan Santaromita

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.

Fire plug some holes with a pair of depth signings


Fire plug some holes with a pair of depth signings

Injuries have depleted the Fire's depth this preseason and with the season opener a day away, the Fire made a pair of signings to fill in at positions especially thin at the moment.

The Fire signed goalkeeper Patrick McLain, who played with the team in 2016, and defender Kevin Ellis, a seven-year league veteran who was a Sporting Kansas City homegrown signing.

McLain fills an immediate need with just two goalkeepers on the roster previously and one of them, expected starter Richard Sanchez, is listed as questionable for Saturday's game with a left elbow injury. McLain gives the Fire two fully healthy goalkeepers, joining second-year player Stefan Cleveland. The 29-year-old made one start with the Fire in 2016, the season finale, and has made three career MLS appearances.

McLain's deal is for one year with club options each of the next two years.

As for Ellis, he gives the Fire a healthy backup at center back. Both Jonathan Campbell (facial fracture) and Grant Lillard (knee) are out for Saturday's game, leaving the Fire with two center backs (Johan Kappelhof and Christian Dean) before Ellis was signed. Ellis was waived by Kansas City on Feb. 27 and joined the Fire as a trialist initially.

Ellis made five starts with SKC last year, but was a regular starter with the team in 2015. He made 26 starts in 2015 and combined for 58 starts and 68 MLS appearances in the past five years. Ellis is signed for one year with the Fire holding an option for 2019.

In addition to the injuries to Campbell and Lillard, and the ACL recoveries of Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic, four players are listed as questionable for the season opener: Sanchez, Luis Solignac (left hip), Rafael Ramos (right thigh) and Daniel Johnson (right ankle). This added urgency for the Fire to add extra players to the roster. Solignac was a regular starter last year and Johnson could be in line for more minutes with the departure of Arturo Alvarez, who was the first attacking midfielder/winger off the bench for most of 2017.

The Fire's roster is now at 27 with these two signings along with the recent signings of rookies Elliot Collier and Diego Campos. Trialists Omar Castro and Albert Ruiz are still with the team, but remain unsigned. Maxi Moreira, who was on trial with the Fire for much of the preseason, is no longer with the team.

Scott Darling victorious in return to United Center

Scott Darling victorious in return to United Center

It hasn't been the breakout year as a starter that Scott Darling was hoping for, but the former Blackhawk got a win in his old stadium on Thursday night.

Darling made 22 saves in a 3-2 Hurricanes win at the United Center. It marked Darling's first game back in Chicago after he played for the Blackhawks each of the past three seasons.

The Blackhawks honored Darling with a video during the game, although Darling said he missed some of it. Overall, Darling said he received a "warm reception" from fans and the team.

"This organization is really first class when it comes to stuff like that and welcoming players back and I really appreciate that," Darling said. "I know my family was able to see it and it was a great night."

Darling, who was traded to Carolina this offseason, was pegged to be the Hurricanes' starter, but struggled and lost the job. Darling has still made a career-high 33 starts with a chunk of the season still to play, but also has the lowest save percentage of his career. He is sitting at .890, which is well below his three years with the Blackhawks where he averaged a .923 save percentage.

Darling's first game against the Blackhawks came back on Nov. 11 in Carolina, a game which the Blackhawks won 4-3 in overtime. This time Darling got the better of his former team, although Patrick Sharp did score on him, which Darling thinks will be brought up again.

"All these guys are great friends," Darling said. "I'm sure I'm going to hear it from Sharpy for scoring on me and guys were coming by during the play and saying hi to me. It was pretty funny. It was a great group and I miss the guys a lot."