Fire adjust to demands of altered approach vs. FC Dallas


Fire adjust to demands of altered approach vs. FC Dallas

A new beginning or another false start?

With their second win over a Western Conference opponent in 22 days, the Fire roused a crowd of 14,209 Sunday night with a 2-0 victory over an FC Dallas outfit that saw the potential of the visitors' sixth consecutive league triumph – a club-record winning streak – snapped by a committed, loyal and collective effort from the Men in Red.

From front to back, head coach Frank Yallop’s starting lineup cooperated with a ‘different’ tactical approach. The positional flexibility and matureness from Designated Players David Accam and Shaun Maloney – who provided both goals on the night – shed light on a group of players that, little by little, is making strides toward grasping the philosophy and style of play.

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“The big thing is, you saw a team last night that wasn’t fighting against what we were trying to do,” Yallop told reporters Monday via teleconference. “It’s a team game; it’s not an individual game. If we ask Shaun to do a little bit more extra work, he was fine with it. Does he want to play a different position to be a bit more attacking? Maybe, but in the end, hard work, endeavor and fight won that game last night. And, tactically, catching them like we did worked.”

Despite being thoroughly out possessed and out passed, the Fire’s unrelenting drive to refuse to sit back and conversely push on for another goal paid dividends. Refreshed by an eight-day break and the return of Jeff Larentowicz to the back line, the Fire refused to sit on their propitious 1-0 lead, bucking the trend of last week’s disappointing 2-2 draw against the New England Revolution.

After keeping a red-hot Dallas and the likes of Mauro Díaz, Fabián Castillo, Michael Barrios and David Texeira at bay, the question lingers as to whether this performance can be reproduced in four days time. While the tactics on display against Óscar Pareja’s side – favoring the counterattack as opposed to possession – were specific to the Dallas game, Friday night’s trip to face the Portland Timbers will truly show if the Men in Red can muster that same endeavor and grit to string consecutive wins together in regular season play for the first time since the three-match winning streak experienced from late March to mid April. 

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“Dallas are a side that likes to manipulate the ball on the edge of the box, and we wanted to counterattack them and try to catch them, which we did,” Yallop added. “Having David in that role was good, it frees him up to better explode into those areas and do well.

“Shaun did a great job defensively behind on that left side to support David. We may play David in that spot again if we feel a team is going to be pushing and we can catch them on the counter.”

The trip to the Pacific Northwest could see Ty Harden and newly acquired Designated Player Gilberto enter the fold. 

After dealing with niggling hamstring issues upon signing with the team, Harden will be available for the trip. Gilberto, meanwhile, is expected to get his visa soon to hopefully be able to join the Fire in Portland on Friday, which would present another dilemma for Yallop in team selection should the Brazilian's fitness be up to snuff. Lovel Palmer, who left Sunday's game in the 68th minute with a sore knee, is expected to be a feature in the squad. Mike Magee is a risk, however, as the 2013 MLS MVP did not train on Monday.

NOTE: Eric Gehrig and Matt Polster were named to the MLS Team of the Week for Week 22, the league announced Monday. Sean Johnson was named to the bench. 

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.