Fire

Fire face Sporting Kansas City in 50th all-time meeting

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Fire face Sporting Kansas City in 50th all-time meeting

Reeling from a third consecutive win, the Chicago Fire finds itself in unfamiliar territory. Sporting Kansas City can say the same, having re-joined Major League Soccer's Western Conference this season.

After securing home wins against the Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC and New York City FC, the Men in Red boast the longest active winning streak in the league and a three-match spate last encountered 19 months ago.

On Sunday, Frank Yallop & Co. will have one chance to put it on the line against Peter Vermes' side, which, for the last decade, has been a regular fixture for the Fire in seasons past. A recent conference realignment saw Sporting KC and the Houston Dynamo make way for expansion sides NYCFC and Orlando City SC in the East, meaning Sunday's nationally televised match at Sporting Park will mark the lone meeting between the two teams in 2015.  

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The Men in Red approach their 50th all-time meeting with Sporting KC -- formerly the Kansas City Wizards -- possessing a commanding 25-13-11 record, but are 8-9-9 on their travels. Despite comparatively going winless in their first three matches, Sporting KC are unbeaten at home and have not lost to the Fire at home since June 2012.

Both sides will be without the services of Matt Watson and Servando Carrasco, who will serve a one-game suspension on Sunday following a decision by the league's Disciplinary Committee this week. 

However, with a Man of the Match performance from David Accam and a virtually flawless defensive display in the Fire's most recent MLS outing, Yallop's side dispelled any doubts of rust following the 20-day layoff.

"We got a lot fitter, I thought we were really on task the whole game, pressed the whole game," he said after the match. "We did all the right things, and that comes from fitness and the great job that our coaching staff did over the three weeks."

Still, Yallop, while pleased with the overall attacking play, cited the lack of a finishing touch against NYCFC. The Fire finished the match with 24 shots, only seven of which were on target.

“I wouldn’t call them problems, just the final little bit of guile will come with a bit more play and bit more confidence," Yallop said after the match.

[MORE FIRE: Watson suspended, fined for foul play vs. NYCFC]

Though the Men in Red have six different goalscorers this season, none of their designated strikers have found the back of the net, a minor quibble in an otherwise burgeoning attack.

On the back of a 4-4 draw at the Dynamo, Sporting KC, on the other hand, is finding success through alternative avenues as forward Dom Dwyer continues to regain the groove that saw him net 22 goals last season, three of which came in all three fixtures against the Fire. Having played every minute of every match this season, Dwyer will prove to be a handful for the Men in Red, as the former South Florida Bull leads MLS with 26 fouls suffered and has had four goals disallowed for straying offside.

Meanwhile, Hungarian winger Krisztian Nemeth's team-high of three goals may just be taking some of the pressure off of Dwyer, who was far and away Sporting KC's go-to player in 2014. Contributions from Sean Maloney's former Wigan Athletic teammate in Roger Espinoza and Benny Feilhaber have supplemented their attack as well.

Feilhaber -- the MLS Player of the Month nominee -- leads the league with five assists and notched two goals against the Dynamo, with his game-tying strike earning MLS Goal of the Week honors for week eight.

With both sides' individual players discovering their form and adjusting to the hustle and bustle of the MLS regular season, the Fire's mettle and three-match league win streak will be put to the test in its first road trip since slipping to the San Jose Earthquakes and the LA Galaxy in March. So, what's at stake?

The Men in Red last won four consecutive league games during a 20-day stretch in September 2012, taking down the Dynamo, Montreal Impact, Columbus Crew SC and Toronto in the process. Should they come away with three points against Vermes' outfit, a first win on their travels in 10 previous attempts will only breed more confidence ahead of a busy month that, after Sunday, includes four games in three weeks.

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.