Fire wary of 'big, big' hill to climb to keep playoff hopes alive


Fire wary of 'big, big' hill to climb to keep playoff hopes alive

In the buildup to the Fire's midweek fixture against the New York Red Bulls, head coach Frank Yallop reminded reporters via teleconference of the team's struggles throughout much of the 2015 term, some of which materialized during the disappointing 1-0 home defeat to the Colorado Rapids last week.

"It seems like we're not quite getting the right combination of creating our chances and scoring them, and the percentage of chances that go in against us," he said.  

What a difference a few days can make.

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Barring the conceding of a first-half penalty kick and a contentious goal four minutes into the second stanza, the Men in Red showed integrity and purpose in an inspired performance Wednesday night, handing Jesse Marsch's side their seventh loss of the season behind a two-goal showing from Kennedy Igboananike.

“Any time you score two goals is good," Yallop said of the Nigerian. "I always say this, and we’ve talked about it a little bit: it takes a while for guys to settle and get their feel. It’s a tough league to come into from the outside. ... Big thing for me is, he works hard, he wants to do well, he tries his best, and he scores two goals to win us the game. So, very happy for him. He’s a good kid that works hard, and the guys really like him and back him up, and I thought he did great tonight.”

Through two-thirds of the campaign, the Fire's inefficiency in front of goal has been a worrying sign. Just four days prior, the Fire were left licking their wounds after 90 minutes had transpired at Toyota Park after falling to the Rapids. Dillon Serna's first-minute strike - Colorado's first of only two efforts on target on the night - was all that mattered despite the 20 shots (four on target) the Fire peppered at Clint Irwin's goal, three of which flew from the boot of Igboananike.

[MORE: Fire midfielder Shaun Maloney seals move to Hull City]

Fast forward to Wednesday night, and some of those issues - at least momentarily - were put to bed. While both of New York's only shots on target resulted in goals, two tallies from Igboananike either side of halftime stole the show. He brought his regular season total to six goals, enough to pull level with David Accam as the Fire's joint top scorer. The Nigerian's six shots accounted for a third of the Men in Red's total count (17) by night's end, many of them forcing exceptional saves from Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.

"We're never going to keep our head down," he said. "All that matters most is three points. We have been losing and making a lot of mistakes, but tonight we beat New York, not an easy game. It's our hard work that pays off (tonight)."   

The endeavor on display on many an occasion throughout the season was there for all to see Wednesday night, and it'll have to be come Saturday night. The Fire begin their three-game road stint against Orlando City SC at the Citrus Bowl, where Adrian Heath's side has dropped five regular season contests.  

“It’s difficult," Yallop added. "It’s not been a great season, obviously. We’re bottom of the league, but I feel we’ve performed better than the points have shown. That’s always a building block for me. I think that the circumstances in the season that have cost us points - individual errors, guys not being healthy - all those things come into it. I think you saw a team tonight that was pretty good. Whoever's on the field, I was excited when we got the ball going forward, it was good to see. I’m forever optimistic. We've got a big, big hill to climb to make the playoffs, but we have to keep going, keep moving on."

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.