Yallop’s second half substitutions pay dividends in Fire’s draw with Crew SC


Yallop’s second half substitutions pay dividends in Fire’s draw with Crew SC

In its second consecutive fixture against an Eastern Conference opponent, the Chicago Fire snatched a late equalizer to earn a vital 2-2 draw against Columbus Crew SC Friday night.

Kei Kamara’s strikes in the eighth and 55th minutes - his eighth and ninth of 2015 - catapulted him above Clint Dempsey to the top of the MLS goalscoring chart, but goals from David Accam and Jason Johnson capped off a late surge from the Men in Red.

"Any time you can come back in a game like this is huge, against a very good team too," said head coach Frank Yallop after the match. "So, you got something out of the game and you come back, and I think the boys are really happy. I felt we, to be honest, we could’ve won it. We had the chances I thought late, but Columbus had a few as well so it was a pretty even game."

The brute, attacking force of Justin Meram, Federico Higuain, Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara was felt early on as the latter’s nonstop running kept the Fire’s back four on its toes. And it didn’t take long before the Sierra Leonean’s persistence paid off.

Following some skillful interplay, Meram was able to find a hint of space to thread a ball to Finlay, who unselfishly squared the ball to Kamara only for the in-form striker to tap in to give Crew SC an early 1-0 advantage.

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For the remainder of the first half, it was Crew SC who piled on the pressure while complacency began to set in just before the halftime whistle. Spurned opportunities and key saves from Jon Busch - who became the fourth player in MLS history to hit a 300-game milestone - left a pedestrian Fire somewhat relieved as Frank Yallop’s side went into the break still within arm’s reach.

Despite showing more gumption at the start of the second half, the Fire fell victim to Kamara yet again. In the 55th minute, an Higuain corner kick found the head of Kevan George, whose redirected effort landed at Busch’s back post for Kamara to nod home for his third brace of the season and give Crew SC a comfortable 2-0 lead.

The 35 minutes that ensued demonstrated flashes of the Men in Red’s collapse at the hands of New York City FC last week, when Yallop’s outfit succumbed to a late rally from the expansion side to only come away with a 2-2 draw. Only against Gregg Berhalter’s delegation, it was the Fire who took on the role of the aggressor and seized control of the match.

Three minutes after Kamara found the back of the net, Accam got on the end of a Kennedy Igboananike cross to nod home from close range, pulling the Fire back within a goal.

[RELATED: Fire seek to quell Crew SC's home form with three points]

With sustained pressure, second half substitutions from Yallop proved to be the difference on the night. As Crew SC sat back in their defensive half, Quincy Amarikwa and Jason Johnson provided the spark that perhaps went missing in a lax first half outing.

Just as it appeared as if luck was not on the Fire’s side - as Amarikwa ringed shots off the post and woodwork - it was Johnson who came to the Men in Red’s rescue. The former Houston Dynamo forward latched onto a cross from Eric Gehrig to head past a stranded Steve Clark in the fourth minute of second half stoppage time to give Yallop’s outfit a deserved point from Columbus.

"[I’m] very happy," Yallop said. "You put them on for a reason ... I said to the guys, well done to the team that started, but well done to the subs. They really made a difference in the match, seeing them sort through and could’ve won the game. So very happy with the all-around squad today."

It wasn’t pretty, but the Fire likely won’t be too bothered. After last week’s 2-2 draw elicited feelings of disappointment and regret, Friday’s 2-2 draw at MAPFRE Stadium will feel more like a win as the Men in Red return to Toyota Park next week to face the Montreal Impact.

Chicago Fire Starting XI (subs)

(4-2-3-1): Jon Busch; Eric Gehrig, Jeff Larentowicz (C), Adailton, Joevin Jones; Matt Polster, Razvan Cocis (Quincy Amarikwa, 71'); Harry Shipp (Jason Johnson, 67'), Shaun Maloney, David Accam; Kennedy Igboananike (Guly do Prado, 83')

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.