Preview: Fire continue road slate against Impact


Preview: Fire continue road slate against Impact

Only three times has Fire coach Frank Yallop had the luxury of naming identical starting lineups in consecutive MLS regular season matches this year: at Columbus Crew SC (2-2 draw) on May 22 and at home to the Montreal Impact (3-0 win) on May 30; at home against FC Dallas (2-0 win) on Aug. 2 and away to the Portland Timbers on Aug. 7 (1-0 loss); and at home to the New York Red Bulls (3-2 win) on Aug. 26 and away to Orlando City SC (1-1 draw) three days later.

Following both of the first two spells - May 22-May 30 and Aug. 2-Aug. 7 - the subsequent regular season fixture would bring about at least three personnel changes. Both games - a 3-1 defeat to D.C. United at RFK Stadium on June 3 and a 3-3 draw with the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park on Aug. 16 - saw the Men in Red jump out to first-half leads, but called attention to a change in chemistry that, among other factors, led to dropped points.

When the ninth-placed Fire (7-13-6, 27 points) travel to Montreal to face the seventh-placed Impact (8-11-4, 28 points) on Saturday (7 p.m. CT; CSN), absences to David Accam (Ghana)Joevin Jones (Trinidad and Tobago) and Matt Polster (United States Under-23) will prompt Yallop to incorporate some fresh faces into the fold in hopes of gaining ground on the teams above them in the Eastern Conference.

[RELATED: International window forces Fire to compensate for absent starters]           

"It's never easy, but we train together every day, so we know each other personality-wise," said Yallop, who was seen frequently intervening Thursday's stop-start training session, stressing defensive shape to a new-look back four. "We worked on a little bit of shape this morning on certain scenarios that I think are going to happen in the game - back four and different changes we make in the lineup as we move forward in the game - just to give our guys a bit of feel with each other."

With a polished performance against a dynamic Red Bulls outfit, the Fire, if not for a dubious offside call on Gilberto and an Eric Gehrig own goal, came close to snatching their first away win of the campaign. Riding that sort of momentum without the energy provided by Polster and balance between defending and attacking supplied by Jones, not to mention Accam's destructive pace on the flanks, will be hard to match.

For Lovel Palmer, who waged a battle at right back with Gehrig during the early stages of 2015 before his move to centerback, vying for places in Yallop's team selection week in, week out has made the Jamaican stronger. Palmer, a likely candidate to replace Polster at right back against the Impact, acknowledged the challenges.   

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Fire jersey here] 

"Gehrig and Polster, hats off to them," Palmer said. "They came in, they've pushed me all season and I'm very happy for the competition. Personally, it's been good for me. I've been working on aspects of my game that I've never really paid attention [to] before. With these guys coming in and banging on the door, it makes me start to look at myself and be like, 'Oh, what am I doing wrong? What do I need to improve on?'

"Good competition makes for a better team. Coach Frank, when he was building his team, he had that in mind, I'm sure."     

Changes are forced, sometimes not. The Fire, largely a momentum team through 26 games, will still be seeking their first win on their travels since July 12, 2014, itching to see whether adjustments to the lineup and formation pan out. When referee Silviu Petrescu blows for the final whistle by night's end on Saturday, the final score will tell the story. 

Viewing information:

Montreal Impact vs. Chicago Fire

Kickoff time: 7 p.m. CT

Where: Stade Saputo; Montreal, Quebec.

Broadcast: CSN Chicago     

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.