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Fire approach halfway point of 2015, face stern test in Sounders

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Fire approach halfway point of 2015, face stern test in Sounders

At the start of the MLS season, scoring woes left a beleaguered Chicago Fire brooding over the deep-seated issue as the likes of David Accam, and forwards Kennedy Igboananike, Guly do Prado and Jason Johnson struggled to leave an imprint on their new club.

On paper, the pool of offseason signings justifiably led many beholders, as well as head coach Frank Yallop, to believe last year's ninth place finish would be superseded by a fresh and redesigned vision in mind. Through 16 games, that vision hasn't exactly come to fruition quite yet.

Languishing in last place in the Eastern Conference, the Fire's scoring problem isn't a secret to many. Having bagged 18 league goals in 2015, the figure signifies the lowest total in the East despite averaging a league-leading 14.6 shots per game. 

"It's haunted us a little bit this season and giving up goals in the wrong times in games," Yallop said Thursday. "We've talked about it; we've worked on it, we've just got to maintain that."

While that hurdle has yet to be overcome, Yallop has another problem on his hands ahead of his team's cross-conference clash with Western Conference co-leaders Seattle Sounders FC Saturday at Toyota Park (7:30 p.m. on CSN).

[RELATED: As injuries pile up, Yallop mulls interest in transfer window]

"We're short a few guys, too," he added. "They have a good squad. It's always a tough game against Seattle; they're very well-coached. They've got a gritty demeanor to their team, so we've got to be ready to fight that and try to win at home, which, again, no matter who's playing for us, we want to to win. It's no different this game." 

Since forcefully dispatching the Montreal Impact, 3-0, the Men in Red dropped four league matches in a row before grabbing a well-earned point in a 1-1 draw with the Houston Dynamo last Friday. In that time frame, Accam and Joevin Jones were called in for international duty, the former emerging with a hamstring injury as a result. An MRI confirmed a bulging disc in Shaun Maloney's lower back. Captain Jeff Larentowicz was also ruled out through a herniated disc in his neck while Adaílton limped out of BBVA Compass Stadium with a groin strain in the 71st minute.

Ahead of Saturday's meeting, an injury-laden Sounders outfit - like the Fire - enters the match with absences of its own. Clint Dempsey (USA), Brad Evans (USA) and former Fire midfielder Marco Pappa (Guatemala) are participating in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in progress, while Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins continues his recovery from an adductor injury sustained June 17. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei will also be unavailable after suffering a sprained shoulder on Friday against D.C. United, leaving the seasoned Troy Perkins odds-on to get the nod from Sigi Schmid. 

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As for the Men in Red, Adaílton worked with fitness coach Adrian Lamb on Thursday, joined in training Friday as the team engaged in light, pre-match preparation, and will be put through a fitness test Saturday morning. Should the Brazilian not be able to go, Eric Gehrig and Matt Polster would be the preferred center back pairing. 

"We need bodies; we need good defenders and he's one of those guys," Yallop said of Adaílton. "Hopefully he'll be OK for at least some type of minutes maybe on the weekend, but for sure on Wednesday."

Accam, meanwhile, could get time as a substitute, but it's still "touch-and-go right now," according to Yallop. But despite setbacks to several of Yallop's top players, the resurgence of Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko will undoubtedly benefit a group of players eager to win its first MLS encounter with the Rave Green in nine previous attempts, as the Windy City meets the Emerald City in front of an expected sell-out crowd at Toyota Park.     

"I want us to be pushing on and pressurizing Seattle, it doesn't matter what our lineup is; it's irrelevant," Yallop said. "We've lost a couple in a row at home in the league and we don't want that to happen anymore. We want to put our line in the sand, and say 'No more.' We want to get a good result no matter how we play. We need to win this game, get our guys back healthy and we'll look better for the rest of the year."

The first 5,000 fans in attendance at Toyota Park will receive a Fire ballcap courtesy of The PrivateBank. The Fire will also be celebrating Chicago Soccer Heritage Night.  

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.