Michael de Leeuw scores game-winner in his first Fire start

Michael de Leeuw scores game-winner in his first Fire start

Out of all the new players the Chicago Fire since the offseason, Michael de Leeuw was the only one that had an in-person introductory press conference.

Some of that was circumstance, but de Leeuw gave an early glimpse into why he was worth the fuss. He scored the only goal in the Fire's 1-0 win against Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday.

After enduring an hour-forty-five-minute weather delay at Toyota Park, de Leeuw's tap-in in the 19th minute stood as the only goal of the game. He made his first start for the Fire (4-8-5, 17 points) and scored his first goal with the team. Razvan Cocis got to the endline on the left side and centered the ball to de Leeuw, who only had to tap the ball into an open net.

"If you can score in your first home game, that’s always great," de Leeuw said. "But I couldn’t miss that one.

"Raz gave me a perfect assist.”

De Leeuw played up top as a target forward. On the goal was able to get on the end of a cross, something coach Veljko Paunovic said the Fire have needed all season.

“We had a lot of guys trying to develop that role of the player who will be in the box and take advantage of a lot of crosses," Paunovic said “We need somebody to be there to score those goals and convert those opportunities.”

Having a different type of forward, as opposed to the speedy David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, does give the Fire a different dynamic to its attack. The Dutch forward is still trying to get a feel for his teammates and they are trying to get used to him. On Wednesday, chances for the Fire were hard to come by, but de Leeuw was in the right spot when he needed to be.

“The confidence is high because you score in your second game," de Leeuw said. “I think they know what kind of player I am, but I think we have to play more games so they understand me and I understand them. You can train it, but in the games you always get the different situations. I think they know what kind of player I am and if I score goals then they know, give the ball in the box, give it to Michael. I have to show them.”

The goal was the only shot on goal for either team in the first half. Sporting Kansas City (8-9-4, 28 points) had six shots in the first half, including a Jacob Peterson shot off the post just before halftime. The Fire went into halftime with one shot and one goal.

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Sporting continued to put the pressure on in the second half, but was not able to find a goal. KC held a more than two-to-one edge in time of possession and a 19-3 advantage in shots. Sporting manager Peter Vermes thought a second minute goal by Dom Dwyer was incorrectly called back for offside, and replays showed he probably was right. Vermes also thought there was a second whistle from a referee that caused some hesitation from his players on the restart that led to de Leeuw's goal. Both breaks went the Fire's way.

Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson came up with a pair of big saves late to preserve the shutout, both came on dives to his left. He stopped a Brad Davis free kick in the 80th minute and denied a Dom Dwyer header in the 87th minute.

“The ball came across and I was able to turn and get set," Johnson said of the save on Dwyer's header. "The whole game I think we battled, we showed we can withstand the test of time in a game. Once you get the goal you always look to push for second. There comes a time in the game where the team is going to push numbers forward and I think everybody dug in tonight and it was a complete team performance.”

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic made five changes from Saturday’s 1-0 loss in Toronto, including having two stalwarts start on the bench. Neither Johan Kappelhof, who had played every minute of league play this season, nor Kennedy Igboananike, who had started every league match, started. Rodrigo Ramos and John Goossens, who both have made an impact in recent games, also did not start. Goossens, Ramos and Kappelhof all came on as substitutes.

The Fire return to action Saturday at league-leading FC Dallas.

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.