What to watch for in the Fire's preseason opener


What to watch for in the Fire's preseason opener

The Chicago Fire open up preseason play on Saturday with a match against the University of South Florida at 4 p.m. CT.

There are a lot of questions surrounding the Fire after a busy offseason. Figuring out what this team will look like is no easy task giving the large number of unknowns and new players. The preseason, let alone the first preseason game against a college team out of season, won’t answer those questions.

With that said, here are some things to watch for if you tune into the web stream of Saturday’s game:

How does the team line up?

The Fire are missing six players in camp. Sean Johnson, Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent are still with the national team and are expected to join the Fire on Monday. New acquisitions in the defense, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos, are not yet with the team either. That means there won’t be a first view of a true starting lineup, but somethings can be learned from who plays where positionally and what the starting formation is.

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How do the rookies look?

Vincent may be gone, but Jonathan Campbell and homegrowns Joey Calistri and Drew Conner are both already signed. With Meira and Kappelhof not in camp, Campbell should get an extended look. In addition, fellow draft picks Alex Morrell, Vincent Keller and Vincent Mitchell have an opportunity to make an impression.

Who plays out wide?

The Fire don’t have many wide midfielders on the roster. David Accam plays out wide, but more as a winger than a midfielder. Morrell and trialist Arturo Alvarez are more naturally wide midfielders, but neither has a guaranteed roster spot at the moment. Saturday’s match could provide a view into how the Fire plan to create width with a roster thin at that position.

Will the Fire build out of the back?

Against a college team the Fire will be expected to control the play, but will the emphasis Paunovic has put on building from the back be evident? The way the Fire build up in attack could be a telling sign of how Paunovic plans to have the team play, even if a number of key personnel will be missing.

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What will the attack look like?

The defense may be missing a number of key players, but the attack is intact. How will David Accam, Kennedy Igboananike, Gilberto and Harry Shipp play together in Paunovic’s system? Without any additions at forward this offseason these four players will be asked to carry the team’s attack, yet they were on the field at the same time for just 28 minutes last season. Gilberto made 10 appearances with the Fire after making his debut on Aug. 22, but by the time he started playing a full 90 minutes Shipp and Igboananike were not used as regular starters. How this group lines up and plays together will be one of the key storylines of the preseason.

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.