Fire

Young Red Stars hope for title push in 2016

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Chicago Red Stars

Young Red Stars hope for title push in 2016

One look at the Chicago Red Stars roster will show something a bit unusual: the oldest player on the team is 27 years old.

The Red Stars, which begin their fourth season in the National Women’s Soccer League Saturday at Houston, had four players over 30 last season. All four of them departed in the offseason, including U.S. Women’s National Team players Lori Chalupny and Shannon Boxx to retirement.

“I would not say 26 is old, but apparently it is,” joked midfielder Alyssa Mautz, who is entering her fifth season with the Red Stars. “I think it’s more so we’re able to cover more space. We have more athletes.”

The oldest player on the team is national team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who turns 28 on April 20. Naeher, who was on the 2015 Women’s World Cup roster for the U.S., was acquired in the offseason.

“She is a huge addition for us,” forward Jen Hoy said. “She brings a lot of experience and composure to our team and our back line.

“She’s definitely a really great presence at the back.”

Naeher joins two teammates, forward Christen Press and defender Julie Johnston, from that World Cup roster. Press led the team with 10 goals in just 11 games last season.

Sofia Huerta had six goals in 2015 and will support Press in the attack along with Hoy, who had four goals and four assists. Those two will have to carry the offensive load while Press and the national teamers compete in the Olympics in August.

A few local additions will get to play in front of friends and family during home games at Toyota Park, where the Red Stars moved back to this season. Katie Naughton, a defender from Elk Grove and Notre Dame, was the Red Stars’ first pick in the draft. Fellow Chicago area products Courtney Raetzman and Sarah Gorden, both from Conant High School, are also rookies this year.

The Red Stars are hoping the youth movement will pay off and the team can improve on last year’s 8-3-9 record and go deeper in the playoffs. In 2015 the Red Stars made the playoffs for the first time in the NWSL before losing to eventual champion FC Kansas City in the semifinals.

“We’re happy we finally broke that barrier of getting to the playoffs,” Mautz said. “Our goal is to make the championship game.”

The home opener is April 23 against Western New York.

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.