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.

2018 Fire preview: Midfield

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USA TODAY

2018 Fire preview: Midfield

The Fire’s midfield underwent a major restructuring in 2017 and it went from being a weakness to a strength. As a result, the unit didn’t see much change entering 2018.

Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger will once again form one of the best central midfield pairings in the league. There are a couple new faces, but the team will still run through them.

Returning players (2017 MLS regular season stats)

Dax McCarty (28 games played, 28 starts, 2,465 minutes, 5 assists)

Bastian Schweinsteiger (24 GP, 23 GS, 1,993 minutes, 3 goals, 6 assists)

Drew Conner (21 GP, 8 GS, 882 minutes, 1 assist)

Djordje Mihailovic (17 GP, 7 GS, 732 minutes)

Brandt Bronico (4 GP, 53 minutes)

Newcomers

Mo Adams (No. 10 pick)

Tony Tchani (trade with Vancouver)

There might be improved depth in this unit with Tchani replacing Juninho and rookie Mo Adams showing signs of being a contributor in preseason. Mihailovic being out for a significant chunk of the season while he recovers from his ACL tear does take away a somewhat different option in midfield, but it’s not clear how he will fit into this lineup when healthy.

Conner got a decent chunk of minutes last season when injuries hit the team hard, but it doesn’t look like they will be easy to come by for him this year. The addition of Rafael Ramos as a backup right back takes away one spot Conner earned minutes in last year. Tchani and Adams coming in with only Juninho leaving means Conner could be further down the depth chart in central midfield unless he beats out Adams for playing time.

Schweinsteiger’s role could see some variation this year. At times in 2017 he played higher up the field and he also played a sweeper/libero role on occasion, but he settled into his more traditional defensive midfield spot by the latter part of the season. With no playmaker on the roster (as general manager Nelson Rodriguez has mentioned the team is still looking for), it appears Schweinsteiger will be one of the players to step into an advanced role in midfield.

Coach Veljko Paunovic said Schweinsteiger will play higher or deeper depending on what he thinks they can take advantage of, and even said the phrase “No. 10” in that context unsolicited after Saturday’s preseason finale.

Tchani and McCarty can be the defensive stalwarts while Schweinsteiger can have more freedom to join in on the attack. If one of them is unavailable, Adams seems like the first choice off the bench given how extensively he played in preseason.

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Fire's preseason finale shows potential season-opening starting lineup

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USA TODAY

Fire's preseason finale shows potential season-opening starting lineup

While most MLS teams were beginning the 2018 season on Saturday, the Fire finished off the preseason with a game against USL affiliate Tulsa which provided a sneak peek at what the 2018 Fire will look like.

Preseason results are meaningless, especially when against a minor league team, but the starting lineup that coach Veljko Paunovic sent out in front of a crowd of hardcore fans at Toyota Park could be the same 11 that start against Sporting Kansas City in next week’s season opener.

There were few surprises in the back, although injuries have limited the options. Stefan Cleveland got the start in goal while Richard Sanchez, the presumed starter, is dealing with a hand injury. The back four was Brandon Vincent, Christian Dean, Johan Kappelhof and Matt Polster. Dean was in the only spot that wasn’t certain going into camp, but he will get the job by default in Week 1 due to injuries to Jonathan Campbell, who still had bruising around his right eye after suffering a facial fracture earlier in the preseason, and Grant Lillard, who has a knee injury and did not play Saturday.

The midfield is where things get interesting. Luis Solignac and Daniel Johnson were both out of action, which left few attacking options to support striker Nemanja Nikolic. Newly acquired Tony Tchani played next to Dax McCarty in the deep central midfield roles while Bastian Schweinsteiger played higher up the field with rookie Jon Bakero and offseason addition Aleksandar Katai playing in wide attacking roles.

Tchani was traded to the Fire on Wednesday and joined the team Thursday. His addition provides more flexibility in the Fire’s midfield and allows Schweinsteiger to play in a more advanced role while not entirely stripping the team’s central midfield depth (rookie Mo Adams can still come off the bench in this lineup).

Schweinsteiger has played in a more attacking role with the Fire, mostly early in his stint with the team last year, but that’s not his usual position. However, a lack of playmaking options elsewhere on the roster may necessitate this move.

“Basti obviously he knows the game perfectly,” Paunovic said after the game. “He knows where to find the rights spots and gaps in between the lines to organize, to be the open man and then to bring the ball to the opponent’s end. That’s the free role that he almost always played for us. Sometimes more specific against some opponents. We will look always to take advantage of all the qualities he brings on the field. As I said, playing as a No. 10, No. 8 in some moments or even as a six. So for sure we will rotate these roles.”

So while general manager Nelson Rodriguez continues to search for a No. 10, Schweinsteiger may be the team’s playmaker in the meantime.

Bakero struggled to assert himself for much of the preseason, but showed flashes of the technical ability that made him the Hermann Trophy award winner this past college season. Him and Katai swapped on the wings frequently and Katai dropped deeper into the midfield than David Accam, the player he is most directly replacing. Katai doesn’t have top line speed, but will be more fluid in the Fire’s attack. He also took corner kicks from the right side and could be a much-needed option to take set pieces after the Fire failed to score from a dead ball situation last year.

The returns of Solignac and Johnson could change things and possibly push Bakero to the bench, but they may not be ready to play starting minutes by Saturday.

“They’re kind of in the last phase of the recovery so we expect them, at least one of them to be back,” Paunovic said. “But we still cannot say. We have to see in the next couple days how they improve and if they can start on Tuesday with the rest of the group.”

Oh, by the way, the Fire won 2-1 with second-half goals from Nikolic and rookie Elliot Collier after falling behind on a passing mistake by Cleveland in goal gave Tulsa a 1-0 lead in the first half.