Fire shifting focus, gunning for fourth consecutive home win


Fire shifting focus, gunning for fourth consecutive home win

Since a 1-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City, the lingering narrative girdling the Chicago Fire has been that of a lack in clinical finishing and concerns over the inability to get off to a flying start in most of their four away matches this season, all of which have proven to be unsuccessful in the points column thus far.

“For us, now, you’ve seen two different teams; one at home and one on the road,” said midfielder Harry Shipp after training Wednesday. “At home, we had confidence and a little bit of a swagger going forward. We played one-two touch, we moved the ball quickly and made it hard to defend. Then we went on the road and played a totally different way. We’ve got to figure out why that is and how to fix that."
In search of their first result against a Western Conference opponent, the Fire (3-4-0, nine points) return to Toyota Park on Saturday with hopes of stretching their home win streak to four games against a visiting Real Salt Lake.

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In his second year at the helm, head coach Jeff Cassar follows in the footsteps of Jason Kreis, who departed for New York City FC after the 2013 campaign. With the strenuous task of safeguarding Kreis' philosophy that led the Claret and Cobalt to a MLS Cup trophy in 2009 and a runners-up finish in 2013, Cassar is feeling the weight of injury and scoring woes that currently sees his side sitting in seventh place in the Western Conference standings.

Having gone 496 minutes since netting a goal from one of their own -- a Javier Morales free kick against the San Jose Earthquakes on April 5 -- and only scoring one goal from open play since March 29, RSL is still finding a way to grind out results, as evidenced by the five draws they've accumulated in 2015, tied for second-most in Major League Soccer.

On the back of a weather-delayed, scoreless draw against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday night, it'll be a fifth road test in two months for Cassar's side, which faces a motivated Fire team eager to continue the winning trend at Toyota Park and put their recent loss to Sporting KC behind them for the time being.

“It didn’t damper the spirit of the team because the guys have been training hard," said former RSL and current Fire defender Lovel Palmer. "If you watched the session today, it was very intense. We’re really gunning and looking forward to our game against Real Salt Lake."       

“We’ve won three straight at home and we’re really starting to establish our identity at home," right back Eric Gehrig added. "It’s our fortress and we’re letting teams know that they’re not going to come in here and boss us around. We’re going to continue building on what we’ve been doing and hopefully get another result at home on Saturday.”

[RELATED: Lack of conviction, slow starts underpin Fire's road woes]

The Men in Red are 3-2-4 against RSL at Toyota Park and from 2011 to 2013, enjoyed a four-match unbeaten streak before suffering a heart-breaking 3-2 defeat in their most recent meeting on May 3, 2014. After assuming a 2-0 lead with 20 minutes to play, last-gasp stoppage time goals by Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata allowed RSL to steal all three points, a match that featured eight of the current Fire players.

On Saturday, RSL will have to make do without Plata, who's recovering from a fractured fifth metatarsal sustained in training at the end of January. Chris Schuler -- a former Fire PDL product -- and Morales are out with a torn medial meniscus and concussion, respectively, while forward Sebastian Jaime is questionable with a right tibia fracture.

For a depleted side struggling to find the back of the net (one goal in four away matches), another gritty performance from a team reliant on its high-pressure system -- behind veterans Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman, and youngsters Luis Gil and Jordan Allen -- will be required if they have any chance of stifling the Fire.   

“Teams that win championships protect their home turf," Palmer said. "That’s what we definitely want to do and come Saturday against Real Salt Lake, we don’t want to make it any different. We want to win at home, we want to play good for ourselves and we want to entertain the fans because that’s what soccer is about: filling the stadium, playing well and getting three points." 

Check out the video above to hear what else Palmer, Gehrig and Shipp had to say. For complete coverage of Fire vs. Real Salt Lake, tune in to Pregame Live beginning at 1:30 p.m. on CSN before kickoff at 2 p.m. The game will start on CSN before switching over to CSN+ at halftime.     

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.