Nyarko, Igboananike send Fire to U.S. Open Cup semifinals


Nyarko, Igboananike send Fire to U.S. Open Cup semifinals

Thanks to Patrick Nyarko's third-minute strike and a late brace from Kennedy Igboananike, the Fire eclipsed MLS expansion side Orlando City SC, 3-1, and secured their passage to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals.

The Men in Red came out of the gates flying, catching the Orlando City back line napping. Jon Busch's long ball forward to Nyarko was brought down well and coolly finished past 'keeper Tally Hall, before Canadian international Cyle Larin leveled in the second half. Two late goals from second-half substitute Igboananike, however, proved to be the difference between the sides in front of an announced crowd of 4,723 at Toyota Park Wednesday night.

“I can smile! Yes!" Yallop replied when asked to submit his opening statement to reporters after the match. "Massive, I've sat here long enough and said to you (reporters), when we have our guys on the field, that we are pretty good. I think that showed tonight, we had the difference-makers out there."

Frank Yallop made a trio of changes from the side that experienced a second consecutive loss to Columbus Crew SC over the weekend. Busch earned his first start in goal since the Fire's 2-0 defeat away to the New England Revolution on June 13. Joevin Jones returned from Gold Cup duty to replace a cup-tied Patrick Doody, while Shaun Maloney's entry allowed Harry Shipp to retreat to a wide role in place of David Accam.

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Maloney -- making his first cameo since emerging with what was diagnosed as a bulging disc in his back in the Fire's 1-0 win over USL's Louisville City FC on June 16 -- looked lively in his No. 10 role: demanding the ball, creating for his teammates and moving fluidly. The Scotland international came close in the 16th minute, knuckling a free kick toward Hall, forcing the Orlando City netminder to parry over the bar.

Shipp generated a couple of solid looks himself, his most dangerous coming just shy of the quarter-hour mark. After combining well with Maloney, the Homegrown midfielder curled a cheeky effort past the reach of Hall and just wide of the right post. A nifty one-two between Nyarko and Razvan Cocis -- sporting the captain's armband -- 10 minutes later led to the Romanian's shot trickling wide of Hall's left post.  

The Men in Red, who outshot the Lions 8-2 in the opening 45, had their slim advantage canceled out 11 minutes into the second stanza. A swift counterattacking move -- ignited by right back Rafael Ramos -- sent winger Eric Avila bursting down the right side before delivering a pinpointed cross for rookie Cyle Larin to head past Busch.   

Substitutes Accam and Igboananike ran the Orlando City defense ragged -- the former showing flashes of his speedy brilliance -- keeping defenders on their heels and forcing a wary Hall into a number of saves as the sides went back and forth as the second half wore on.

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With extra time looming, the two Designated Players put matters into their own hands. Three minutes from time, Matt Watson sprung Accam down the left side before releasing a shot that clanked off the post, falling to Igboananike to tap in and restore the Fire's lead. The Nigerian was on the mark again in the 91st minute, dribbling his way around Hall and scoring on an unguarded net to eliminate the visitors from the quarterfinal stage for the second time since 2013. 

"Hopefully this win, although it's in the Open Cup -- it was against a very good opponent -- lifts our spirits and we have a great performance on the weekend and win," Yallop added. "I think we have done well to get to this stage and we have had a couple tricky ties at home, forget the opposition. If you look at some of the results in the Cup, a lot of teams go through that are lower in the league. We stuck to it, got through it and did well."

The victory sets up an away visit to face the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park on Aug. 12 in the Open Cup semifinals, four days before the two sides meet in Philly again for a MLS regular-season fixture on Aug. 16.

Chicago Fire Starting XI (subs):

(4-4-1-1): Jon Busch; Matt Polster, Eric Gehrig, Adaílton, Joevin Jones; Patrick Nyarko (David Accam, 59'), Matt Watson, Razvan Cocis (C), Harry Shipp; Shaun Maloney (Kennedy Igboananike, 66'); Jason Johnson (Michael Stephens, 90').  

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.