Fire going 'all out' in preparation for USOC quarterfinal


Fire going 'all out' in preparation for USOC quarterfinal

It's no secret that the Chicago Fire hold the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in high esteem.

With a 23-1-1 record in Open Cup games held in the state of Illinois, the Fire -- champions of the competition in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2006 -- booked their place in the last eight for the 13th time in club history with a win over Charlotte Independence on June 30.  

Having never been eliminated at the quarterfinal stage -- boasting an 11-0-1 record all-time -- the Men in Red will look to continue the trend Wednesday night against Orlando City SC at Toyota Park (7:30 p.m. CT;, Three wins shy of a fifth Open Cup title, a fourth semifinal berth since last lifting the trophy -- and second consecutive since head coach Frank Yallop's appointment -- is on the line.

“In the [first] two rounds, we found a way to win,” Yallop said Monday via teleconference. “Hopefully it’s our tournament. We’re desperate to do well. It’s a very good record, and hopefully that continues to 24-1-1. It will be tough. Orlando are a good side, as we’ve seen. They’re coming in to try and win the match, and they have some good players, but our guys will be up for it and ready. Let’s hope we can get through and get a good result.” 

[RELATED: Fire to host Orlando City SC in U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals]

Should the Fire carry the day, they will travel to face the Philadelphia Union, who outlasted the New York Red Bulls with 10 men Tuesday night and prevailed in penalty kicks to etch their place in the semifinals.

Heading into Wednesday's clash, however, a 3-2 league defeat to Orlando City on June 6 -- the first of four scheduled fixtures between the sides in 2015 -- will evoke haunting memories of a game Yallop “felt we should’ve got more out of,” he told reporters. After taking a 2-1 lead through clinically taken goals by Kennedy Igboananike and David Accam, Orlando City striker Cyle Larin's bullet and Adaílton's own goal helped the visitors secure three points at Toyota Park.

Since then, Yallop's roster depth has come to the fore, as captain Jeff Larentowicz, Designated Players Shaun Maloney and David Accam -- among others -- were sidelined with injuries. Despite the absences of Larentowicz and Mike Magee, who was forced to sit out of Sunday's 3-1 loss at Columbus Crew SC with a knee contusion, Yallop will have the rare luxury of fielding a near first-choice lineup. Accam and Patrick Nyarko are in contention to start, Joevin Jones is back and recuperating from Trinidad and Tobago's exit from the Gold Cup, and, after taking part in his first full training session Monday morning, Maloney will likely be available for selection.     

"[Wednesday] is an important game for the Fire," Yallop added. "It's [Open Cup] a big, big tournament we want to win. We’re going all out. It’s not a lineup that’s going to be to give guys 90 minutes. This is to win the match. I know the tradition we have here at this club, and we want to continue that and have a good result on Wednesday to get through to the next round. We’ll deal with the weekend game after that.”

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A victory Wednesday night for the Men in Red could generate promising effects apart from just the Open Cup. With back-to-back defeats to Crew SC, a third straight loss, conversely, would breed a streak not experienced since early March and June, when the Fire lost three on the trot against Western and Eastern Conference opponents, respectively.

Ahead of MLS regular season matches against the New England Revolution and FC Dallas, punching a ticket to a 13th Open Cup semifinal appearance could provide just the sort of boost the Men in Red need as they begin a three-match homestand.

“It’s not been according to plan with what’s gone on this season, injuries a part of it and not quite getting the job done is a part of it,” Yallop said. “We’ve just got to believe we’re going to win every game we’re going to play, and that’s all we can do. Including on Wednesday, and then come Saturday and the following Sunday, we’ve got three home games in a row, so we’ve got to look to get three wins if we can.”   

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.