Fire: Yallop stresses fitness during 20-day break from MLS play


Fire: Yallop stresses fitness during 20-day break from MLS play

Two weeks have elapsed since the Chicago Fire's last competitive fixture. A thrilling 3-2 comeback win over Easter weekend against Toronto FC earned the Men in Red their second consecutive victory over an Eastern Conference opponent, leaving them five points adrift of league-leading New York Red Bulls.

Since April 4, Frank Yallop's side has been limited to training sessions and two intrasquad scrimmages after the deferral of the April 15 and April 18 league matches against the New England Revolution and Montreal Impact.

During Monday's weekly media conference call, Yallop revealed his thoughts on the 20-day hiatus, how his team is ramping up fitness levels and more ahead of Friday's encounter with New York City FC at Toyota Park.

Intrasquad Game (April 18)  

Despite tinkering with the notion of scheduling a friendly against an opposing side, the Fire were forced to settle with an intrasquad scrimmage over the weekend, which was closed to the public at the request of Yallop.

"It was 11 on 11," he said. "We did some coaching in the middle of it, stopped it. It's just like a normal training session, I wouldn't call it a proper game.

"We played about 80 minutes. We've worked very hard the last two weeks, so I didn't want to push them too much for a 90-minute game. The guys have really looked sharp, focused and they can't wait to play against a team other than themselves.

"It helps, but it's not the real game."

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Dealing with consecutive bye weeks

Yallop continued to stress the fitness component and preparation prior to the intrasquad game, which was designed to mirror the typical cycle of the team's training regimen before MLS regular season matches.

"The guys are calling it a 'mini preseason,'" Yallop said. "We really pushed the guys fitness-wise.

"A lot of guys missed a lot of preseason: Jeff Larentowicz, [Shaun] Maloney, [David] Accam. You can go on and on. Kennedy [Igboananike] was injured, [Matt] Polster. It was good for us to get our fitness really, really amped up and we did. Just playing together has helped all our guys.

"Shaun's looked really sharp in training, and so has David. They're really coming along and in the end, you're going to see those guys really shine in the games real soon."

Injury updates

Quincy Amarikwa and Michael Stephens, both nurturing ankle injuries, are still recovering from the physical game against Toronto, which saw more than one Fire player emerge with a knock.  

"Both have been working with Adrian Lamb, our fitness coach," Yallop said. "Both did not participate in the scrimmage on Saturday. We expect Quincy to be back in training pretty soon and to be available for Friday, but he's been out 12 days so we'll see how he gets on.

"Mike Stephens is still a little bit tender. I expect him to not be available for the game."

Meanwhile, Razvan Cocis is working his way back into the squad and adds to a long list of midfielders for Yallop to consider for upcoming team selections.

"He's another one that's been out for a long time, but he's looked sharp when he came back. I thought he did well on the weekend in the game we had. He'll be pushing for a spot too.

"It's always good. It's never good for the players, but it's good for a coach to have options and pick the ones that you think are going to get it done in training and games when they get a chance.

"It's a good dilemma to have. Hopefully I'll pick the right guys that are going to get us a win."

[MORE FIRE: Fire swap Alex for Houston Dynamo forward Jason Johnson]

Vying for spots

As noted above, it's been no secret that with this year's offseason acquisitions, the new blood is paving the way for competition for roster places, a missing component in Fire teams of late.

With Jason Johnson's smooth transition bearing fruit and Víctor Perez steadily acclimating to the speed of MLS, the emergence of Yallop's midfield is drawing deserved attention and supplying the second-year head coach with some much-needed optimism.   

The praise is similarly being heaped onto defenders Patrick Doody, on loan to St. Louis, and Eric Gehrig. 

"[Patrick] Doody's done well," Yallop said. "We liked him a lot in preseason. It's great for him to go full-time to St. Louis to get a lot of playing time down there, and he's done well. He's one for the future for us.

"Eric Gehrig's slotted in nicely at right back. I played him a lot at center back in preseason because of the injuries we had.

"We're pretty healthy in those outside areas right now with JJ [Joevin Jones], Greg Cochrane, Doody, Lovel [Palmer] and Eric. It's pretty solid."

[MORE: Fire vs. Impact match moved from April 18 to Sept. 23]

The Men in Red return to action against expansion side New York City FC on Friday at Toyota Park. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.

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.