Fire

Fire remain positive despite playoff loss

929645.png

Fire remain positive despite playoff loss

By Jeremy Mikula
CSNChicago.com contributor

Despite being eliminated in the Knockout Round of the Eastern Conference playoffs Wednesday, the Chicago Fire remain positive about their season.

"Hundred percent," striker Chris Rolfe told CSNChicago.com when asked if the season was considered a success for the club. "17 wins is unheard of since I've been here. The guys have a lot to be proud of; the coaching staff has done such a great job. Right now it's hard to say and look back at the way it went, but when we've kind of calmed down and take a look back, well see how special a year it was."

The Fire qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and amassed a 17-11-6 season -- good for fourth place in the East with 57 points. However, the season would come to end Wednesday night at the hands of the Houston Dynamo, who came into Toyota Park and walked away with a 2-1 win.

For captain Logan Pause, the loss should serve as a building exercise for a team largely devoid of MLS playoff experience.

"The big thing is for the guys to know and understand the feel," Pause said. "First of all for what it takes to get here, which is one element, and then the feeling of getting knocked out, which is one we don't want to feel."

"It's a hard one to swallow right now," Pause added. "But I'm proud of where this group has come over the last year. I don't think anyone thought much of us at the beginning of the year, missing the playoffs two years in a row. There are elements where it was a success, but we're in the business where we want and need to win championships."

The Fire fell behind in the 13th minute when Will Bruin scored his first of the night on a Brad Davis corner. Seconds into the second half, Bruin completed his brace when he slotted home in the 46th minute past Sean Johnson.

Chicago managed to pull one back through second half substitute Alex, who replaced Pause at the interval. Alex's 83rd minute goal put the Fire within touching distance, but ultimately Houston held on to setup a showdown with Sporting KC on Sunday.

One highlight for the Fire in the match was veteran German centerback Arne Friedrich, who put in a performance at both ends of the pitch.

"Unfortunately it was not enough," Friedrich said of a performance that saw him both defending and leading attacks. "We were down, I saw some opportunities so I wanted to push. It's really sad because we played a really good season. But this is soccer."

Friedrich joined the Fire in the offseason after cancelling out of his contract with Bundesliga side VFL Wolfsburg. Despite playing in two World Cups and a European Final with Germany, and numerous seasons in the Bundesliga, a championship has eluded him.

"There was a great chance this season, but I guess we were a little lazy," said Friedrich, who hopes to extend his one-year contract with the Fire. "We could have won some winnable games against Philadelphia at home and at New England. But we have to learn from that. The team has a good spirit, a good character, and everybody can learn from this season and the mistakes we made."

Although by no means a rookie, Friedrich is nonetheless a rookie when it comes a postseason that determines a league champion. In most soccer leagues, the team at the top of the table by seasons end is crowned the champion.

"It's cool, I like," Friedrich said of the new experience. "We'll see at the end who wins, but for teams like Kansas City or San Jose its really hard because one game and they could be out. But for teams like Houston who finished in the fifth position, everything is possible, so I like this."

With the season now over for the Fire, the team has indicated a return to the postseason in 2013 is a goal.

"The most important thing for us is winning an MLS Cup," said Rolfe, the team's MVP and Golden Boot winner."It's going to be the same thing next year, just keep pushing ourselves and try to get further than we did this year."

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

gordon-signs.jpg
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.