Photo by Jeff Vorva
Veteran Fire goalie Sean Johnson said the changes on the team are positive.
Preseason games are generally useless when trying to judge how a team is going to do in the regular season.
But for Chicago Fire fans, it’s the only body of work to base opinions on.
The team has a new general manager (Nelson Rodriguez), a new head coach (Veljko Paunovic) and a roster with a lot of new faces to get used to.
So when the Fire went through an unbeaten preseason of six matches – including a 2-0 victory Saturday over defending Major League Soccer champs Portland to win the Simple Invitational Championship – it gave followers a chance to dream about making it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
But now reality hits. The Fire opens the 2016 campaign hosting the New York City Football Club at 1 p.m. at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.
This will give people a clearer picture of what this team can do.
“Winning the first game is important but not crucial,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to lose a game over the course of the year. The way we look at it is that 50 points is pretty much the barometer for getting into the playoffs. We have broken the season down in bytes and we will approach the season in that way. To win at home, would be an energizing moment.
“It’s two marquee teams in the league. It will be an interesting first game.’’
The veteran of the team, goalie Sean Johnson, has looked around the locker room and has seen a lot of new teammates trying to learn Paunovic’s system.
“It’s a positive change for us and we’re adapting to it,” Johnson said. “We’re trying our best to get up to speed.’’
Rodriguez is not making the rookie mistake of getting too giddy over the preseason.
“Winning is nice and it was especially nice to win Saturday night,” Rodriguez said. “But 24 hours later, it meant nothing. This Sunday will be the real first test that the team faces. We still have to get better. But I’m satisfied with the progress we have demonstrated so far and the team has the capability to improve.
“We haven’t been punched in the face yet. We haven’t lost four games in a row yet. We haven’t lost 4-0 yet. We haven’t had the media criticize us yet. The real test of that character will come when we face genuine adversity. But for the moment, we’re very pleased with how the character of the group has come together.’’
Paunovic was happy with the team’s 5-0-1 preseason.
“The players are trying to do what we are asking and demanding,” Paunovic said. “They are doing it and they want to do it. And they believe it. And it shows it with how we performed in the preseason. They can see how the system can work.’’
But the players and coach meshing is something that may not work as easily during the regular season.
“Pauno’s style and demands are great,” the GM said. “But there is no substitute for time and experience in that setting. Five weeks is plenty long enough for preseason but it’s not the same as five months. Or five years. One thing that will benefit us in more time together. Now keep in mind that when you add or subtract a piece, you stunt that timeline a little bit.
“We are looking at Sunday as a microcosm of where we are. We need to do better in possession. We gave the ball away a little bit too easily. Our back line is still getting to know each other and will get better. We will limit chances against us. And I think there is room for us to generate even more opportunities on the offensive side of the ball.’’
New York, only in its second year of play, also has a new coach – Patrick Viera – who took over for Jason Kreis after a 10-17-7 debut in the MLS. Spain’s David Villa is the team captain.
The New York squad finished 5-1 in its preseason and beat the Reykjavik FC 2-1 on Saturday with Andrea Pirlo and Mix Diskerud scoring goals.
Last year, the Fire beat New York City 1-0 and the two teams followed with a 2-2 tie.