International window forces Fire to compensate for absent starters


International window forces Fire to compensate for absent starters

With the FIFA international window (Aug. 31-Sept. 8) beginning Monday, the time is now for Fire head coach Frank Yallop to assess the depth of his squad ahead of Saturday's trip to face the Montreal Impact.

David Accam (Ghana), Joevin Jones (Trinidad and Tobago) and Matt Polster (United States Under-23) all went the full 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw with Orlando City SC Saturday night, and departed The Sunshine State Sunday morning to team up with their respective national squads. With newly acquired defender Daneil Cyrus (Trinidad and Tobago) and Collin Fernandez (U.S. U-20) joining them, the excursion to Stade Saputo on Sept. 5 will present unique challenges for the Fire technical staff during training this week. 

“We’re going to be missing some key players, but we’re hoping that the little bit of momentum in the last league games we’ve had can carry us through,” Yallop told reporters Monday via teleconference. 

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Accam - one of the club's prominent attack-minded signings during the offseason - produced a goal and an assist in his previous two outings, and was named to the MLS Team of the Week for his exploits. The Ghanaian could feature in the Black Stars' friendly against Congo on Tuesday and the African Cup of Nations qualifier against Rwanda on Sept. 4. 

The 24-year-old's absence for the journey to face the Impact will create a void on the left flank, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. Yallop must compensate for two other key starters away on international duty this week - Jones and Polster - and fathom how to devise a balanced team sheet in the coming days before a bout with their Eastern Conference foe.

The absence of Jones and Cyrus, who'll be in contention to start for Trinidad and Tobago's friendly with Mexico on Sept. 4 at Rio Tinto Stadium, prompted the second-year head coach to recall defender Patrick Doody from his loan stint with USL side Saint Louis FC, with fullback Greg Cochrane waiting in the wings as another apt replacement, according to Yallop.

[RELATED: Fire's Sean Johnson earns USMNT call-up for friendly vs. Brazil

In terms of playing time, the international dates can wreak havoc for MLS squads that play through the window, with injury concerns at the forefront of the conversation. Yallop engaged in varying levels of dialogue with Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago and the U.S. U-23 men's national team after learning of Accam, Cyrus - who's yet to officially join the Fire - Jones and Polster's call-ups within the last week.     

"Polster basically has been asked to go the last two trips before [Friday’s call-up], and I’ve basically stopped that in chatting and talking to the coaching staff over there," Yallop added. "At some point I’ve got to abide by the rules and let him go. This is a trip that is very important to them; it’s their preparation [for Olympic qualifying]. I expect him to play 90 minutes in the first game [Sept. 3 vs. England], and we spoke a little bit of not playing as much on Tuesday [Sept. 8 vs. Qatar] so he’s available for our game on Friday [Sept. 11 at New York Red Bulls].

“I’ve spoken to [Trinidad and Tobago] coach [Stephen Hart]. He’ll look at the minutes, but they don’t have many defenders, so Daneil and JJ – Trinidad are a little bit light on defenders – should still be okay for our next game [at New York].”

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.