Fire

Amarikwa: I've been looking to break through for a while now

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Amarikwa: I've been looking to break through for a while now

In his third full season with the Chicago Fire, Quincy Amarikwa hasn't had much luck finding the back of the net. 

One of four players to have featured in all 14 MLS regular season matches thus far, half of the Bakersfield, Calif., native's appearances have come as a substitute. In that time, the Fire's No. 24 has let 32 shots fly at the opposition's goal, a team-leading statistic matched only by Homegrown midfielder Harry Shipp.

Characterized by his dogged work rate and a willingness to goad defenders into turning the ball over, the 25-year-old's unswerving tenacity yielded his first goal of the season in the Men in Red's 1-0 extra time victory over USL's Louisville City FC.

"That's the name of the game: you create enough chances, and you take enough shots on goal, eventually you'll score," Amarikwa said. "That was the mentality going into the game. I've been looking to break through for a while now, and it's nice to get the monkey off your back. It's just a matter of continuing to not let the misses keep you from taking your next chance."

[RELATED: Amarikwa goal catapults Fire into fifth round of USOC]

Amarikwa's lone goal in Tuesday night's triumph snapped a prior three-game losing streak in the league, but against lower opposition in the fourth-round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup fixture, clinical finishing - among some of the team's other collective concerns - materialized once more, evidenced by the 17 shots taken by the Fire, with only two of them registered on target.

A thorn in the side of the group through the better part of the campaign - which is rapidly nearing its halfway point - a disgruntled Frank Yallop also disclosed his discontentment with his players' lack of effort against a readily determined opponent, eventually calling on Amarikwa to provide the spark.      

"I didn’t think our first half was up to standards for a team trying to win the cup," Yallop said in his post-match press conference. "This is round one, but you're trying to win a trophy. I thought we were sleep walking through it and not applying ourselves. And I told him that. I think a saw a response, not in our general play but in our desire. It showed in the end, we did keep going. We did get the goal that we wanted in the end. The result is all that matters.”

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With several regulars rested and others still recovering from having played 72 hours earlier, Yallop said it's difficult to judge a makeshift starting lineup from Tuesday's Open Cup display. 

Claiming their fourth clean sheet overall, the Men in Red now have the Open Cup fifth round draw (Thursday at 10 a.m.) to look forward to before returning to Toyota Park for another midweek encounter against D.C. United next Wednesday. As for Amarikwa, a first goal since providing the winning tally in preseason against Queens Park Rangers leads the striker to believe an upturn in playing time can present itself.  

"That was my first 120-minute game in a long time, and my first 90-minute game in a month and a half or two months," he added. "No matter how much you run in training or how much you train, it's not the same as match fitness. I did the best to run as much as I could to gain as much match fitness as I could today, and I'm hoping that translates into more minutes down the road."   

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.