Fire fall flat in U.S. Open Cup semifinal

Fire fall flat in U.S. Open Cup semifinal

Entering Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal at New England, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said it was the 'game of the season' for his team.

If that was the case, his line may have been fitting in a way he didn't intend. The 3-1 loss to the Revolution was a microcosm of the season in a number of ways.

The Fire struggled on the road in the cup like they have on the road in Major League Soccer this season. The Fire have lost nine in a row on the road in MLS and struggled on Tuesday just like in two road defeats at Gillette Stadium in league play.

New England took the lead via a Kei Kamara penalty kick in the 16th minute. Rodrigo Ramos tripped Kelyn Rowe just inside the box with the Revolution midfielder actually going away from goal.

The Fire’s hero, even if only for a short period, was yet again David Accam. Accam scored his fifth goal of this Open Cup in four matches to tie for the golden boot race in the competition. Michael de Leeuw slid to win a loose ball in the box and direct it to Accam. From there, the Ghanaian put some moves on in the box to get free and score from close range.

However, in a fitting summation of the Fire’s year, New England regained the lead two minutes after Accam’s goal. Kei Kamara headed a corner kick towards the goal, but it was blocked. Je-Vaughn Watson nodded in the loose ball in the 42nd minute.

The loss, which was the Fire’s fourth semifinal Open Cup loss in four years, will go down as a missed opportunity for the Fire. A win would have meant hosting the final and winning the cup would have marked a significant milestone in the turnaround of the club.

Instead, the same problems that have plagued the Fire all year showed up in the loss. The Fire started slow, struggled to keep possession, created few chances and were forced to scramble defensively. The Fire’s attack came to life a bit in the second half, mostly through Accam and John Goossens, but few times did they truly challenged goalkeeper Brad Knighton. Then Teal Bunbury sealed the deal with a long-range shot that tucked inside the far corner in the 85th minute.

Accam showed some of his frustration in a harsh challenge on Rowe in the final minutes. The two then got into a bickering match with some shoves involved. Accam got sent off, with Rowe receiving a yellow card, and kicked some of the sideboards on his way out.

The Fire now face a tough reality in the final two and a half months of the season. The team is now out of the cup and, with the worst record in MLS, playoff hopes remain slim. The final third of the season could end up being a tryout for 2017 with the Fire holding club options on most of the roster.

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.