Fire hoping for payback against NYCFC


Fire hoping for payback against NYCFC

It’s just the fifth match of the Chicago Fire’s season, but a familiar opponent already awaits on Sunday.

New York City FC, which beat the Fire 4-3 in the first match of 2016 in Toyota Park, now hosts the Fire at Yankee Stadium.

Since that match the Fire have given up just one goal in three matches, a feat the club hadn’t produced since Aug. 2014, and haven’t lost (one win and two draws). On the other side, NYCFC came home for three matches and went winless (two draws and one loss). The Fire haven’t given up a goal in the past five halves of soccer while NYCFC has scored just one goal in its last five halves.

Given the recent turn of fortunes, the teams now have matching 1-1-2 records. The Fire are motivated to get even with the New York foes, and NYCFC is looking for its first win at home in four tries.

“There’s the mental aspect of losing to a team so you probably have to get some revenge and have a better game against them,” midfielder Michael Stephens said. “Knowing a few of their strengths and weaknesses and having experienced it already is helpful.”

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Another storyline from the Fire perspective is that a loss or draw in Yankee Stadium would doom the franchise to matching an MLS-record 27-game winless streak on the road. The New York Red Bulls franchise set that record in 2009.

That would be harsh on Paunovic, who is heading into his second road game as Fire coach, but he has been asked about the streak on multiple occasions.

“Playing and winning on the road is more difficult in this league,” Paunovic said. “(This) is something we are aware of, but we strongly believe that the best possible way to win the games on the road is to analyze the opponent, to prepare the best we can prepare from our standpoint.”

The Fire won’t have David Accam for the third straight match and goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who has been relegated to the No. 2 role so far this season, is still out with a wrist injury that has kept him from practicing between the posts the last two weeks.

For New York City, Frank Lampard will be out. Lampard hasn’t played yet this season.

[MORE: Veljko Paunovic's coaching tendencies starting to emerge]

As always, the smaller field at Yankee Stadium, which is listed at 110 x 70 yards while Toyota Park comes in at 120 x 75 yards, changes the game. Paunovic had the practice field at Toyota Park made smaller to help the team adapt.

Following back-to-back shutouts and the first win of the season, the Fire will likely be playing with more confidence. NYCFC should be feeling pretty good as well seeing the only team they’ve beat this season opposite them.

“I think we’re starting to get that belief in ourselves that we’re a different team than last year,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “We’re capable of actually going to New York this weekend and getting three points. Obviously we want to score more goals, but I think defensively we’ve been great. We just got to keep that up and take advantage of the opportunities up top.”

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.