Colorado Rapids

Fire learn home opener, first three games of 2018 schedule

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USA TODAY

Fire learn home opener, first three games of 2018 schedule

The full 2018 schedule will wait, but for now we know the first three games the Fire will play, including the home opener.

Major League Soccer announced the home opener for all 23 teams on Tuesday and the Fire will begin the season March 3 at the Colorado Rapids. The home opener at Toyota Park will follow the next weekend on March 10 against Sporting Kansas City. The Fire will also travel to play Minnesota on March 17 for the Loons' home opener.

Kickoff at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado, will be 8 p.m. on the opening Saturday of the season. Colorado is 14-3-5 is home openers all time and the two teams also opened the 2010 season in Colorado, which was a 2-2 draw.

Kickoff times for the Fire's home opener and the game in Minnesota remain unannounced. The Fire's trip to Minnesota will be the team's first with the only meeting between the 2017 expansion team and the Fire coming at Toyota Park.

This opening slate of games gives the Fire a good opportunity to get a strong start to the season. Colorado was one of the worst teams in the league in 2017. Minnesota also failed to make the playoffs, although the Loons did win in Toyota Park in late August.

Around the league, a pair of notable matchups during the opening weekend include an Eastern Conference final rematch between Toronto and Columbus, which will be the first game of the season, and the debut of Los Angeles FC, which will take place Sunday, March 4, at Seattle.

The rest of the schedule will be announced in January.

As the offseason marches on, the Fire avoided losing any players in the expansion draft for LAFC and also passed in the waiver and re-entry drafts. Stage 2 of the re-entry draft takes place Thursday and the next notable date on the offseason calender it the draft combine, which begins Jan. 13.

Nemanja Nikolic takes MLS scoring lead in Fire win

Nemanja Nikolic takes MLS scoring lead in Fire win

After a bit of a slow start in his first couple matches, Nemanja Nikolic is suddenly one of the hottest strikers in Major League Soccer.

Nikolic scored twice to help the Chicago Fire to a comfortable 3-0 win against the floundering Colorado Rapids on Wednesday at Toyota Park.

Nikolic reached double figure goals in 11 matches. He became the fastest Fire player to 10 goals, taking a record from 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee. When asked if he was surprised by his own early success, Nikolic bluntly said no.

“I think that the most important thing is the team plays really good," Nikolic said. "I don’t do anything special. I think my teammates make a fantastic job for me. I am all the time in the right place and also like today I don’t have a really difficult job to finish the action. Thanks to my teammates I adapt really good and fast."

Brandon Vincent delivered a cross from the left that Nikolic headed into the net in the 15th minute. That marked Nikolic’s fourth straight game with a goal.

With that goal, Nikolic took sole possession of the league lead in goals. He moved past Houston’s Erick Torres, who also had eight entering the night and did not score in the Dynamo’s 2-0 loss at Philadelphia on Wednesday.

"I don’t think about this," Nikolic said of leading the league in goals. "The season is so long so we have a lot of games more. Of course every striker wants to score every game and to be top scorer in the end of the season, but I think it’s too early to speak about this."

The Fire (5-3-3, 18 points) dominated the first half with the wind at their backs on a windy night in Bridgeview. Colorado (2-7-1, 7 points) was in a shell most of the half, hoping to weather the storm before having the wind with them in the second half.

Things did not get better after halftime for the Rapids, which have the lowest point total in the league.

The Fire added a second goal with David Accam finishing off a sequence of quick passes involving Matt Polster, making his first start of the season at right back. Polster initially set up Michael de Leeuw, who appeared to have a shot at an open goal but couldn't reach it. Accam was there to finish it.

Nikolic’s second goal came in the 74th minute with de Leeuw doing the heavy lifting on the play. He flicked the ball around a defender to get free on the right wing and played a perfectly angled ball at the back post where a sliding Nikolic scored.

"My game and my style, I need the players behind me to give me really good balls," Nikolic said. "Like today, Brandon gave me a fantastic ball for the first goal, Michael gave me for the second."

Coach Veljko Paunovic said they knew what they were getting when they signed Nikolic this offseason. Nikolic led the Hungarian League in goals each of his last two seasons there before leading the Polish Ekstraklasa in goals his first season with Legia Warsaw.

“I think he has that natural hunger for scoring goals," Paunovic said. "In his career he has scored so many goals so right now we have him in his prime. That’s important for us. Strikers they live for streaks like this, scoring goals, scoring goals, scoring goals and sometimes when they don’t score goals obviously they are nervous. We know that, we have to manage with that and we always support our guys.”

Nikolic's presence has also opened things up for players like Accam, who has five goals and four assists this season.

“He’s a great finisher and he’s got really good movement," Accam said of Nikolic. "Every time I get the ball I try to look at him and see where he is because I know if I get the ball to him he’s going to score. Also when he moves, he takes away defenders for me."

The Fire, which played in front of an announced crowd of 11,244 after selling out Saturday’s win against Seattle, play again in three days at D.C. United.

Fire try to extend home unbeaten run against Colorado on CSN+

Fire try to extend home unbeaten run against Colorado on CSN+

The Chicago Fire didn’t have much time to enjoy Saturday’s big win against Seattle.

Four days after beating the defending champs in front of a sellout crowd, the Fire host the Colorado Rapids. CSN+ has the live coverage beginning at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

The Fire’s undefeated home record will be on the line against a Rapids team which is 0-4 on the road. Colorado is coming off its second win of the season, a 3-0 win against San Jose which snapped a five-game losing streak. Colorado (2-6-1, 7 points) enters with the lowest point total in the league.

“Colorado is in need of points,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “Defensively they are tough and also have experienced players and players in attack who can be decisive.”

The Rapids have given up 12 goals, fifth fewest in the league, but have scored just eight, fewest in the league.

The Fire (4-3-3, 15 points) have lost to Colorado the last two seasons.

“They have some good players, really quality players, strong,” winger David Accam said. “They will give us a tough game. I remember playing them here my first year and we lost. I don’t want to lose them again.”

The game continues the Fire’s stretch of four games in 13 days. The Fire started the stretch with a win against Seattle and will continue it at D.C. United on Saturday. The finale is a home match against Dallas the following Thursday.

The short rest and future tight schedule could call for more squad rotation and will test the team’s depth. Goalkeeper Jorge Bava is still out with a head injury that kept him out Saturday as well and Michael Harrington is listed as questionable due to illness. Juninho, who missed the Seattle game with a sprained ankle, is not listed on the injury report and could return to the lineup.

“We now have the stretch of four games in two weeks where we have to give some guys some rest,” Paunovic said after the Seattle match. “Other guys we have to push them until we have that small break that we will have after the game against Dallas.”

This will also be a chance to find out how fit Bastian Schweinsteiger is. The 32-year-old German midfielder has started every match since joining the Fire, but even admitted a few weeks ago that he was playing at 70 percent fitness. Will he be able to start all four matches in this stretch?

“I’d love to play every single second so I hope I can play every minute,” Schweinsteiger said last week. “I am actually looking forward (to it). I love to play games. I mean training sessions are always good, but I think every player likes to play games and matches and that’s why I am actually happy about it.”

Paunovic didn’t give anything away in regards to Schweinsteiger’s playing time during this busy period.

Either way, the Fire will be expected to win against the Rapids, something which hasn’t been true often for the Fire in recent years. The Fire are 4-0-1 at home and playing the team at the bottom of the MLS standings.

“We want to win every home game,” Accam said. “We want to win every game, but when you lose at home you lose your pride and I don’t want to lose my pride. We need every game at home. It’s huge for us.”

Chicago Fire vs. Colorado Rapids

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+

When: Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (4-3-3, 15 points), Rapids (2-6-1, 7 points)