Fire play at Real Salt Lake with Open Cup semifinal on deck

Fire play at Real Salt Lake with Open Cup semifinal on deck

The situation facing Fire coach Veljko Paunovic in the next four days is potentially a tricky one.

Paunovic and the Fire face a game at Real Salt Lake on Saturday, three days before the U.S. Open Cup semifinal at New England. Saturday's game at Rio Tinto Stadium in is on CSN at 9 p.m. with coverage beginning at 8:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

Paunovic will have to decide how strong of a lineup to play at RSL considering what is almost certainly the biggest game of the season to date takes places on the other side of the country three days later. Paunovic didn’t have David Accam or Jonathan Campbell travel to the game at FC Dallas, which was four days before the Open Cup quarterfinal in July. It's possible similar moves to rest players happen Saturday, although Paunovic wouldn't tell reporters when asked.

Playing in altitude against RSL (9-7-7, 34 points) will give the Fire (4-10-6, 18 points) a tough test. RSL is undefeated at home this season (5-0-5), but has drawn the last four home matches.

“For the sake of the position and how well they are performing in the season so far I think for them they see this game as a must-win so it’s going to all make this game tougher for us,” Paunovic said. “We believe that just by playing like we are doing right now, keeping our identity, that mentality of playing 90 minutes even when you concede goals, is something we have to improve. We make our games tough to our opponent and that’s how we have to go to Salt Lake and play with the same identity.”

The Fire will be without Joao Meira, who suffered a hamstring strain last weekend against the New York Red Bulls, and Khaly Thiam, who was suspended by the league for a hard tackle against Dax McCarty in that game. That could make any squad rotation even tougher.

One addition could be the debut of forward Luis Solignac. On Wednesday, the Fire traded for the Argentine from Colorado and general manager Nelson Rodriguez said on Thursday that he expects Solignac to play Saturday. He flew directly to Salt Lake instead of meeting the team for training this week. Solignac won’t be able to play in the Open Cup game in New England because he already played for the Rapids in the cup this year.

RSL’s leading scorer, Yura Movsisyan, has missed the past two games with a hip flexor and is listed as questionable. He returned to training this week and could make his return.

“Salt Lake is a strong team, especially at home,” Fire midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “They have their core, their backbone of the midfield in [Kyle] Beckerman and [Javier] Morales, who have been in the league and playing so well together for a very long time. We got to make sure we stay on top of that, we focus on that, but at the same time they have good individual players, [forwards Joao] Plata and [Juan] Martinez. It’s going to be a difficult game. I think we just got to go in there with a confidence.”

Chicago Fire at Real Salt Lake

When: 9 p.m. Saturday (coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live)


Where: Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah

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.