Fire

MLS needs its own Chicago-St. Louis rivalry

MLS needs its own Chicago-St. Louis rivalry

The Chicago-St. Louis sports rivalry has been on display in recent days with the Blackhawks-Blues playoff series and the Cubs making the first trip to Busch Stadium earlier this week.

Cubs-Cardinals is one of the better rivalries in baseball and when both teams are competitive, as they are now, it has even more fire. Blackhawks-Blues has been rejuvenated with recent playoff meetings.

Meanwhile, on the soccer side there is no Major League Soccer team in St. Louis to provide the Chicago Fire with that same marquee matchup, but that could be changing.

MLS commissioner Don Garber said that the league wants to expand to 28 teams. The league currently sits at 20 teams. Atlanta and Minnesota plan to join next season and Los Angeles FC and the Miami franchise headed by David Beckham aren’t much further behind. That brings the league to 24 teams and Garber’s comments reopened expansion competition with four new spots in the league available.

Hawks-Blues and Cubs-Cards over the last few days has shown that the Chicago-St. Louis sports rivalry is strong and MLS needs to be a part of that. The Fire need a true rival and St. Louis’ introduction to MLS would be an instant rival for the Fire given the heated rivalries in other sports.

The closest MLS teams to Chicago are Columbus, which is over five hours away, and Kansas City, which is an eight-hour drive away and no longer in the same conference as the Fire. Minnesota’s addition to the league will add another Midwestern team which Chicago sports fans will be familiar seeing as a divisional rival, but odds are that team will head to the Western Conference, limiting meetings with the Fire to just once a year.

St. Louis has played a massive role in the history of soccer in this country. A glimpse of that was shown in the movie “The Game of Their Lives,” where a group of players from The Hill neighborhood in St. Louis featured on the 1950 U.S. World Cup team which beat England. On the collegiate level, St. Louis University has won 10 national championships in men’s soccer.

So what are the chances of St. Louis getting a team?

SI.com’s Brian Straus broke down the current expansion candidates. Straus said Sacramento is practically a lock, but referred to St. Louis as the best bet for team No. 26. There has been talk of MLS in St. Louis for years, but the Rams’ departure seems to have sparked interest a bit more. Garber admitted Thursday that Sacramento and St. Louis are the frontrunners.

Currently Saint Louis FC, which plays in suburban Fenton, is the top soccer team in the market. They play in the USL and are the Fire’s affiliate. Good crowds for that minor league team and for international games, either European summer friendlies or U.S. National Team games, have shown the interest for soccer is there.

It’s always a matter of finding an ownership group and a stadium deal when it comes to MLS expansion. If those two things come together, St. Louis will have a team because both the league and the city appear interested.

If and when it happens, it could give Fire fans a home game or two to circle on the calendar every year, which is something currently lacking.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

gordon-signs.jpg
USA TODAY

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.