Veljko Paunovic in search of consistency as Fire begin preseason


Veljko Paunovic in search of consistency as Fire begin preseason

When Nelson Rodriguez took over as Fire general manager towards the end of the 2015 season, he talked about a long-term plan. As him and coach Veljko Paunovic enter the third year together, 2018 represents a significant season for the duo.

While the regular season success of last year showed significant progress, the early playoff exit showed there is still further to go for the Fire to become the “championship program” Rodriguez speaks of repeatedly. Tuesday marked the first day of training for the Fire in 2018 even though the roster, by Rodriguez’s own admission, is “incomplete.”

The rookie class, which features two top 10 draft picks in Jon Bakero and Mo Adams and a homegrown signing in Grant Lillard who likely would have been in that range as well had he been eligible for the draft, could help improve the team. On the flip side, the trade of David Accam leaves a big hole in the attack.

Tuesday’s training session at the Toyota Park Dome in Bridgeview marked the first time for the rookies and other new arrivals to train with the Fire. At this point fitness is more of a focus than during the season, but Paunovic has other goals in mind as well.

“Getting the new guys on the same page with the other guys in terms of how we train, what our values, how we behave, what is our work ethic and everything that we have to introduce to them in the first week,” Paunovic said. “On the other side we are also working on our fitness and from the first day we will start to work on our style and just remind the guys who are returning from the last year and the new guys have to get on the same page as everyone else.”

Rodriguez said he was excited by the opening of camp, but also told the players beforehand that nothing is guaranteed.

“Everything needs to be earned,” Rodriguez said. “The returning players and the veterans maybe have a little bit of a head start, but nothing is promised other than we will make every decision that we think is in the best interest of winning, upholding our values and serving our community.”

The group was a bit short-handed on Tuesday with Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster both in national team camp and Johan Kappelhof not having traveled to the U.S. while he awaits the birth of a child. Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic are working out to recover from ACL tears, but won’t be with the group.

Three trialists are on the training camp roster: winger Josh Gatt, Uruguayan defender Maxi Moreira and goalkeeper Sam Howard. Gatt is notable for being a speedstar in his prime with then-Norwegian champions Molde, but knee injuries have limited him since. The 26-year-old American played with Colorado and Minnesota last year, his first in MLS, and had his option declined after the season. There were two players from the Fire’s academy in training as well.

With so many faces not there yet and likely future additions still to be made, the team doesn’t yet resemble what will be on display for the season opener on March 10. However, Paunovic is hoping to see consistency to improve upon last year.

“I think last year we just showed what we are capable of and this year we have to have more consistency in everything we do on and off the field,” he said. “I think we established our style, but I’m going to start with the defense. I think we allowed too many goals, sometimes too innocent and not being concentrated and focused on what’s going on on the field. We could have avoided all that and that’s the first thing we want to improve. Then I think it’s going to be very important to work on our set pieces, offensive set pieces, which we didn’t have a good year last year. These are the things that you can immediately see and recognize that have to improve.”

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.