Fire

Paunovic praises Fire's young players

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Paunovic praises Fire's young players

With a preseason game completed, Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic has a bit more to say about his team.

During his weekly conference call with media on Monday, Paunovic talked about how impressed he has been with some of the team's younger players, getting Sean Johnson, Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent into camp from the national team and some early impressions from Saturday's 3-0 win against the University of South Florida.

"We are very happy so far with how the team is performing and improving and obviously we know we have to still improve our form for the next couple of weeks to prepare well for the long season," Paunovic said.

The Fire are filled with youth, with 12 players on the preseason roster who are first or second-year professionals. Veteran additions like Michael Harrington and Nick LaBrocca as well as returning veterans like Eric Gehrig and Razvan Cocis almost have dual roles on the squad to help the younger players integrate into the team.

"Our veterans are helping a lot to our youngsters, to integrate and to catch the level that they have because we believe players like Mauricio [Pineda], Collin [Fernandez], Kingsley [Bryce], [Patrick] Doody and others are the future of our team," Paunovic said. “I was surprised with the group of youngsters. This is the first time that they really are challenged to work with senior players and professional players at a professional level. I’m very, very surprised with the level and the commitment and as I said before they are proving themselves to be reliable in the future of our team.”

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One player specifically who impressed Paunovic has been Fire Academy player Mauricio Pineda. Pineda, who is 18 years old, signed his letter of intent to play collegiately for North Carolina while at the Fire's training camp in Tampa. Pineda has been training with the first team throughout the preseason and even started Saturday's match against USF. Already a youth national team prospect, Pineda is emerging as a player who could become a homegrown signing for the Fire in the near future. Paunovic said it's too early to say if Pineda could actually remain with the first team and sign at the end of the preseason, but he spoke highly of the defender.

"I would say we are very happy with what we expected that he can do on the next level, the professional level," Paunovic said. "He is proving that. He, Collin and other guys that I mentioned before, this is what gives us security that we have. Now obviously they have to work still."

A couple other players which Paunovic had an eye on against USF were Joey Calistri and Vincent Keller. Keller was the only Fire player to play the whole match, playing center back in the first half and right back in the second half. Calistri, a forward throughout his Fire Academy and Northwestern career, played right back in the first half and impressed his new coach.

“The technical staff, we had a discussion about where he can fit the best for our squad," Paunovic said of Calistri. "We believe that obviously trying him in that position in the session during the preseason, he proved that he can play there. That’s why he played there because we want to find the best position for him and obviously we have to see that in a game. That’s why we played him in that position and we were very happy with his performance.”

[MORE: Calistri looks to add depth to Fire's forward line]

Monday marks the first day of training for Johnson, Polster and Vincent. Paunovic talked about Vincent's debut performance for the U.S. national team on Friday.

“We were very happy to see him play the other day," Paunovic said. "He deserves it because I’m sure he did great at the camp so that’s how and that’s why you earn the confidence of the coach. This is how all our youngsters have to understand how to do it. What we are expecting from him is the same thing: being a humble and hard-working guy and bring the talent that he will provide us. We expect him to be a good prospect not only for us, which is obvious, but for the Olympic national team and even for the senior team.”

As for the foreign transfers who have yet to join camp, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos, Paunovic said Meira has his visa and should join the team in the next couple days. Kappelhof and Ramos are still waiting for their visas. Paunovic also clarified how the Fire discovered Ramos. The 20-year-old Brazilian didn't play much at the U-20 World Cup which Paunovic coached Serbia in, but they scouted him on video from his nine appearances with Coritiba.

“He did not play too much at the World Cup," Paunovic said. "The fact that he was a part of that great team was very important for us. When he was offered on loan to us, we started scouting him. I saw all the nine games that played for Coritiba this past season.

"What I saw and what the technical staff saw was that he is a fast player, he is good on the ball, he has that Brazilian attacking mentality and attitude so that’s what we are looking for. Obviously he is good defensively, but at the same time he attacks very well after he recovers.”

The Fire continue the preseason with a 3 p.m. CT kickoff against the Philadelphia Union on Thursday.

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.