Fire

Paunovic explains decision to trade Harry Shipp

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Paunovic explains decision to trade Harry Shipp

As the Fire start the final leg of the preseason in Portland, the minds of fans might be in Montreal.

That’s where fan favorite Harry Shipp is after being traded on Saturday.

However, the club has moved on and coach Veljko Paunovic updated the status of the team during a conference call with the media on Tuesday morning. Paunovic didn’t give the full nitty-gritty details of the trade, but did offer some insight as to why the Fire made the move.

“At a point we had the situation with Harry where we had to decide because there was a team very, very interested in him,” Paunovic said. “We can’t say at that point we could guarantee for Harry that he was going to have the role that everybody and he expected. We had to decide obviously and make the best possible decision. Harry will have a better opportunity to play soccer, which he obviously always wants. That’s basically the main situation.

“I’m going to repeat it thousands of times: he’s a fantastic kid. He handled it very well and it was very difficult for him and I can tell you for us, too. He’s moving forward and we’re going to root for him. He’s a great guy and we appreciate everything he did for Chicago... I think we made the best possible decision for all parties.”

Paunovic makes it sound like Shipp was not going to be a regular in the lineup. The next question then is why Paunovic and the Fire came to that conclusion.

“I think that the first reason, the technical reason, is why we decided to do that,” he said. “For the style of play and for what we are looking for in that position is something that we decided was very important.”

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The Fire have played with a 4-2-3-1 formation in the two preseason matches so far. Shipp played in the central attacking midfield role, in the center of the three, in both matches. Collin Fernandez also played in that position.

The 19-year-old has shown flashes of talent, but has only one MLS appearance, a six-minute substitute appearance. He is the most obvious candidate to receive playing time at that position unless a new player comes in. Paunovic stayed mum on possible new acquisitions, but did talk about the competition for a now open spot left vacant by Shipp.

“We have guys on the roster we are looking for and they have an opportunity to show up and prove themselves now that there is an open spot,” Paunovic said. “That’s where we are with the guys we have on the roster we are looking if they will take this opportunity and win this spot. I think I said that everybody has to earn their spot. For everybody in the position, everybody has to earn it.”

When asked about which players have stood out to Paunovic in camp so far, he took a broader view of the team.

“I want to see in our team guys who will take advantage of the situation now and earn the hearts of our fans and obviously our staff and our other players,” Paunovic said. “This is what we are looking for in this situation. We want to convert this situation into a positive, dynamic situation where the players will be eager to play in the way the fans love and obviously win for our team.”

[MORE: Trade emotional for both Harry Shipp and Fire fans]

Paunovic also commented on the status of trialist Arturo Alvarez. Paunovic said he has been happy with Alvarez and his will to accomplish everything the team asks of him. However, no decision has been made on whether to sign him to a contract.

Dutch defender Johan Kappelhof joined the team in Portland on Monday. Paunovic had words of praise for the Fire’s new addition.

“What I love in the interview that Nelson and I had with him before we decided to sign him, he said, ‘I love to defend. I love the challenge of playing 1v1. I’m really engaged in defending our goal,’” Paunovic said. “We saw the soccer player who wants to play, build out of the back and who is committed to possession of the ball and progression. He has a very good, quality pass, his decisions are good. He is a defender and that defensive mentality that he has, that defensive attitude is contagious and that’s what we are expecting from him. When we have to defend because that’s part of the game what we expect from him is to be one of the leaders in our defensive line and contain everyone in front of him.”

The Fire’s first game in Portland is against the Vancouver Whitecaps at 4:30 p.m. CT.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

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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.