Fire taking shape after preseason win against Vancouver


Fire taking shape after preseason win against Vancouver

After an offseason that has resulted in wholesale changes for the Chicago Fire, Sunday's preseason match against the Vancouver Whitecaps finally gave a glimpse of what the 2016 season could look like.

The Fire kicked off the Simple Invitational in Portland's Providence Park with a 3-2 win. Unlike in the club's two preseason matches in Florida, coach Veljko Paunovic had almost all of the first team at his disposal. The starting lineup he chose could closely resemble the starting lineup for March 6's season opener against New York City FC.

Only David Accam, who was out with an illness and missed training on Saturday, and Rodrigo Ramos, who just joined the club on Saturday, were not available. Eric Gehrig also is still rehabbing and returning to full fitness after surgery late last season. Accam and Ramos could end up starting on March 6, but other than that don't be surprised if the team looks similar.

John Goossens continued his standout preseason trial with the Fire with an early goal. The Fire's high pressure caused problems for Vancouver throughout the early going and Matt Polster forced a turnover just outside the box. Goossens ran onto the ball and finished in the fifth minute.

Goossens later setup Gilberto for an open chance with a killer through ball that bent around the defenders and hit Gilberto in stride. Gilberto's hard shot was saved for a corner. Goossens showed technical ability, strength and defensive instincts. Him and Polster were arguably the Fire's two best players on Sunday.

[MORE: Must-see: Goossens' volley goal]

Much has been made of Harry Shipp's departure and what that means for the central attacking midfield spot. At least in a meaningless preseason game, Goossens showed he is more than capable of playing that role. For that matter, a central midfield trio of Goossens, who brings possibly the best technical ability on the team, Polster, who showed good technical skills of his own to go with his usual strong physical play, and Razvan Cocis, who is a steady veteran presence, could end up being a strength of the team. Who knows how things play out during the season, but at least on Sunday this group stood out.

It wasn't all rosy though. Vancouver tied things up in the 24th minute when a cross from Fraser Aird on the right side landed at the feet of Christian Bolanos. Bolanos could only flick it with his heel and the ball went backwards directly into the stride of Fire defender Johan Kappelhof, who knocked the ball into his own net.

The Whitecaps definitely struggled with the Fire's high pressure early, but controlled the later part of the first half and eventually took the lead. Sam Adekugbe's low cross from the left wing was tapped in by Cristian Techera in the 38th minute.

The Fire's defense didn't inspire much confidence. That said, the starting back line of Michael Harrington, Joao Meira, Kappelhof and Brandon Vincent are all new to the team. Learning how to play with each other will take time.

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The Fire maintained better control in the second half and converted two penalty kicks. The first came in the early minutes of the second half when an Arturo Alvarez through ball found Gilberto in the box. He was taken down and then converted the penalty himself.

Later, Collin Fernandez was tripped in the box and Kennedy Igboananike converted the penalty in the 81st minute. Both players had subbed on shortly beforehand.

The Fire return to action on Wednesday against NASL side Minnesota United FC with a 7 p.m. kickoff.

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.