Paunovic era starts slowly as Fire drop opener to NYCFC


Paunovic era starts slowly as Fire drop opener to NYCFC

The Veljko Paunovic era started with a thud on Sunday, but it was a thrilling thud if there is such a thing.

New York City FC beat the Chicago Fire 4-3 in a season opener that kept producing goals.

The Fire's new-look defense struggled to prevent chances and New York capitalized. All four defenders and goalkeeper Matt Lampson were making their Fire debuts and that unit didn't start well.

Even before kickoff Paunovic made his mark by choosing Lampson in goal ahead of Sean Johnson. Lampson struggled with NYCFC's press and there were some miscommunication errors in defense. Some of that should be expected with all new players, but it still wasn't a good debut by any definition.

"I think he did his best," Paunovic said of Lampson. "I think he worked for the team. He tried to develop the plan that we prepared. We are happy with him."

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Thomas McNamara scored the first goal of the Major League Soccer season with a beautiful curling effort from outside the box in the 10th minute. It was a great shot that left Lampson no chance, but McNamara was given plenty of space by the Fire midfield in a good position.

"I thought when we were able to switch the ball we were able to expose them a little bit and give us a little bit of an advantage," McNamara said.

The Fire almost answered immediately with David Accam springing Gilberto behind the NYCFC defense, but Gilberto went down in the box and didn't draw a call.

In the 19th minute the Fire did get their equalizer through Razvan Cocis. Arturo Alvarez hit a chipped pass over the defense and Cocis made a deep run to find himself all  alone in the box. He took his time and finished to level the match at 1-1.

The goals just kept coming with Tony Taylor putting the visitors back on top in the 29th minute. He scored with a nice turn and finish in the box after Michael Harrington and Joao Meira collided while trying to clear the ball.

Khiry Shelton doubled the New York City lead by burning Brandon Vincent on the right wing and dancing past Lampson in the 36th minute.

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Paunovic made another key decision at halftime, taking off Gilberto for Jonathan Campbell. On paper, taking off a forward and putting in a central defender while down two goals at halftime seems like a strange move. However, it seemed to work initially.

From the start of the half Accam and Kennedy Igboananike created all kinds of problems for the New York City defense. In the 49th minute, Accam forced a turnover and fed the ball across to Igboananike, who scored to get the Fire back in it and re-energize the crowd.

Then Mix Diskerud volleyed home the sixth goal of the match in the 63rd minute off a cross from McNamara.

Accam got the Fire back within one with a penalty kick in the 71st after a corner kick resulted in a handball in the box. That would be the end to the goals though.

"This is just the beginning of our philosophy," Accam said. "We have young players and they'll learn and we'll try to improve for the next games."

In all, nine players debuted for the Fire. Six starters, Lampson, all four defenders (Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Michael Harrington and Brandon Vincent) and Arturo Alvarez, and subs Campbell and Rodrigo Ramos and Joey Calistri.

As an additional note, John Goossens was unavailable while still awaiting his visa. On the pregame show on CSN, Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said Goossens is flying back to the Netherlands this week to finish the process, but Rodriguez said he wasn't certain Goossens would be available for Friday's match at Orlando City.

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.