Fire

Fire look to extend unbeaten streak at New England on CSN

Fire look to extend unbeaten streak at New England on CSN

The perception of the Chicago Fire has changed drastically in the past three months.

The days of the Chicago Fire's road winless streak that endured from the end of 2014 through most of 2016 are gone and now the team enters a road game at New England with expectations of winning, and they aren't far-fetched.

The Fire visit the New England Revolution on Saturday hoping to extend a current eight-game unbeaten streak which includes Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup win at Saint Louis FC. Coverage begins on CSN at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

On this date last year the Fire had a 2-5-5 record and didn't show much sign of progress in Veljko Paunovic's first year. Now as a second-year coach, things have changed for Paunovic and the Fire (8-3-4, 28 points).

 

"We flipped the situation from the last year 180 (degrees)," Paunovic said last week. "Last year at this point we were probably second from the bottom and now we’re second from the top. That’s something that shouldn’t be casual and we shouldn’t take it for granted. Everyone contributes to that, especially the players, the whole organization and the club. Our fans who are great helping us here coming and we have every time when we play at home we feel like we have our fortress, our home. We are strong here. We just have to translate that when we play on the road. I think we are getting there. We are not changing our style when we play on the road and we can see that the other teams are respecting us. It’s the long work in progress and it’s very nice to see that there are some good performances.”

While Wednesday's win in Missouri against a minor league team isn't the greatest proof of the Fire's improvement on the road, the team is also unbeaten in three straight MLS road games.

New England, like the Fire and other teams in MLS, has a vastly better record at home as opposed to on the road. The Revolution (5-5-5, 20 points) are unbeaten at home (5-0-2) and winless on the road (0-5-3). The Fire are unbeaten at home (7-0-1) and have one win on the road (1-3-3). So while things have changed for the Fire this year, a draw would still be a positive result.

Both teams are coming off a win in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday. New England beat Rochester 3-0 and sat the likes of Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo and Kei Kamara while other key players in Diego Fagundez, Gershon Koffie and Kelyn Rowe came off the bench. The Fire played a lineup of mostly regulars at Saint Louis FC, including Dax McCarty in his return from the national team, but rested Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Accam, Nemanja Nikolic and Joao Meira.

These two teams already played this year in Schweinsteiger's third game in a Fire uniform. He scored and Nikolic had two goals in a 3-0 Fire win after New England suffered a red card in the first half.

"When we played against Atlanta (last week) we said that for us is the payback," Paunovic said on the Fire's website. "Now we believe that New England feels the same about us because of the way we won here."

There is one big name on the injury report for either team, New England midfielder Xavier Kouassi. The designated player will be out with a hamstring strain. The Fire will be without goalkeeper Jorge Bava, who hasn't started since April 29 and has elbow tendinitis.

Chicago Fire at New England Revolution

TV: CSN Chicago

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.

Records: Fire (8-3-4, 28 points), Revolution (5-5-5, 20 points)

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.