Nemanja Nikolic

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: Attackers

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USA TODAY

2018 Fire preview: Attackers

Most of the rest of the Fire’s starting lineup features mostly familiar faces, but there is the most change in the attack. Namely, the support for striker Nemanja Nikolic, who led MLS in goals with 24 in his first season in the league.

Nikolic gives the Fire a proven MLS finisher, but with David Accam gone and Michael de Leeuw out at least until summer, the question will be where will his chances come from? The fullbacks, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster, can still provide some chances and Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger are more than capable of providing a key pass from midfield, but Accam and de Leeuw shared the team lead in assists last year with eight.

Coach Veljko Paunovic has shown some fluidity in his formation and tactics, but tends to revolve around a 4-2-3-1. Nikolic is locked in as the top striker when healthy, but the three underneath him are the biggest question marks for the Fire in 2018.

Returning players (2017 MLS regular season stats)

Nemanja Nikolic (34 games played, 34 starts, 2,946 minutes, 24 goals, 4 assists)

Michael de Leeuw (30 GP, 26 GS, 2,189 minutes, 3 goals, 8 assists)

Luis Solignac (33 GP, 26 GS, 2,153 minutes, 7 goals, 4 assists)

Daniel Johnson (8 GP, 125 minutes)

Newcomers

Jon Bakero (No. 5 pick)

Diego Campos (second round pick)

Elliot Collier (third round pick)

Aleksandar Katai (on loan from Deportivo Alaves)

If Katai can replace Accam’s production (14 goals, 8 assists) the Fire are likely headed to the playoffs again. Don’t bet on that though simply because those are lofty numbers. Accam was one of seven players with 10 or more goals and eight or more assists last year.

Positionally Katai might be a somewhat direct replacement for Accam, but he has a very different skill set. Katai doesn’t have anywhere near Accam’s game changing speed, which opposing defenses would bend over backwards to account for, but he will probably contribute more to possession and build up play. In Saturday’s preseason finale against Tulsa, Katai frequently dropped a bit deeper to string passes together.

Beyond Katai, the big question is who will be the primary playmaker. Until another player is brought in, general manager Nelson Rodriguez has said they are looking to make an addition at that position, that’s the biggest hole on the roster. Schweinsteiger could play higher up the field this year, but that’s not his natural spot.

Bakero, a highly touted rookie, has some of the abilities to play as a playmaker underneath Nikolic, but struggled in preseason. Solignac returns after being a solid contributor as mostly a right winger in 2017, but was hurt to close preseason. The same goes for Johnson, who has talent, but injuries continue to keep him from showing it on a consistent basis.

If one or Johnson or Bakero has a breakout year, the Fire will be in good shape. If both struggle, or Johnson continues to miss time with injuries, the Fire’s attack, and likely Nikolic’s goal total, likely takes a step back from 2017.

Nemanja Nikolic earns MLS Best XI nod

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USA TODAY

Nemanja Nikolic earns MLS Best XI nod

After being shut out of all the nominations the Fire had in Major League Soccer's year-end awards, Nemanja Nikolic received some recognition when he was included on the league's Best XI.

Nikolic led the league with 24 goals this season and was the first Fire player to lead the league. He broke the single-season record of goals in club history and all of this came in his first year with the team. He was also a deserving winner of the team's MVP award.

The eleven players were selected via a vote by media, MLS players and MLS technical staffs as part of the year-end awards.

Nikolic also finished second in voting for the 2017 Newcomer of the Year and is one of five finalists for the MVP award, although Portland's Diego Valeri is expected to win the award after MLS announced a press conference in Portland on Monday, the day the award winner is being announced.