Fire seek to quell Crew SC's home form with three points


Fire seek to quell Crew SC's home form with three points

With nearly a quarter of the regular season gone, there's little separating last year's Chicago Fire team to this year's squad. Through nine matches in 2014, the Men in Red held a 1-2-6 record. Heading into Friday night's Eastern Conference skirmish with Columbus Crew SC (4-4-2, 14 points), Frank Yallop's side (3-5-1, 10 points) sits just below the red line in seventh spot.

Barring a handful of matches in which they were on the end of unsalvageable scorelines in Yallop's first year at the helm, the Fire's 2014 and 2015 campaigns are two of a kind. Aside from a 2-0 defeat at the hands of defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy, the following eight matches have been evenly contested and settled by a goal or less.

The jarring disparity, despite accumulating virtually selfsame records at the same juncture only a year apart, still reflects itself in the goal department. With 17 in their pocket after nine games in 2014, the Men in Red are finding goals to be at a premium in 2015, having only netted nine, good for second-fewest in Major League Soccer.

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After addressing last week's anticlimactic 2-2 draw against New York City FC — in which the Fire stormed out to a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark in a superlative first half performance — Yallop will be on high alert come Friday as his side braces itself to overcome a high-octane and potent attacking force in Crew SC.

"They're a good side and they're good at home, so it's obviously a hard game for us," Yallop said. "We've got to go in there with a good attitude. We'll have the same sort of game plan as we did (at NYCFC) but obviously cut out our mistakes that cost us goals."

A group profoundly relying on its possession-oriented style of play, Gregg Berhalter's outfit have underachieved thus far, showing how well it can perform at times without necessarily getting the equivalent results. Much like the Fire, Crew SC's woes away from home have overshadowed their otherwise near impeccable home record — winning four of five at MAPFRE Stadium — the exception being a narrow 2-1 loss to an eye-catching New York Red Bulls team.

Leading the league in passing accuracy (82.4 percent), home goals scored (13), chances created per match (11.6), shots per game (15.2) and, not to mention forward Kei Kamara peering down from his perch atop the goal-scoring leaderboard with seven to his name, the Black & Gold boast an arsenal of attacking threats.

Expect a clever, mercurial and tireless Federico Higuain to put his stamp on the action with his playmaking and goal-scoring know-how, while threading the ball to the likes of Kamara and Ethan Finlay, who — time and again — will impose their lateral and vertical flexibility against the Fire defense, drifting and adjusting their movements to link up with the Argentinian.

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Despite the obvious goal threat, the leadership within Berhalter's delegation has yet to fully develop. Since losing vice captain Wil Trapp to a concussion, a depleted Crew SC — on the heels of a 2-0 defeat to the San Jose Earthquakes — will have to find an extra gear to subdue the blistering pace provided by David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, who've pulled together in front of Shaun Maloney to wreak havoc for opposing defenders.

On Friday, the same might be said when Michael Parkhurst and Emanuel Pogatetz face the Men in Red's Designated Player trio, who'll be integral components as Yallop's side enters its second in a span of seven successive matches against Eastern Conference foes, while looking to pounce at the opportunity to gain three valuable away points.

"We've played well enough to get more points than we have," Yallop said. "Just have to prove it now."

The Fire are 24-14-14 all-time in regular season matches against Crew SC, while clutching a slight 10-9-6 advantage in matches played in Columbus. Last season, the teams finished 1-1-1 in three meetings, with the Fire claiming a 4-2 win in a fifth-round U.S. Open Cup match.

Friday's match, scheduled for a 7 p.m. CT kickoff, is the first of three regular-season bouts between the two sides in 2015. The Men in Red host the return leg at Toyota Park on Wednesday, July 15 before returning to MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday, July 19.

Hear what else Yallop had to say in the video above.

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.