Fire season preview: Team focusing on faster start, defense

Written By BY BRIAN SANDALOW For Sun-Times Media Posted: 03/09/2014, 03:47am
Array BRIDGEVIEW, IL - JULY 07: Mike Magee #9 of the Chicago Fire scores a first half goal against Sporting Kansas City during an MLS match at Toyota Park on July 7, 2013 in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Fire star Mike Magee recently was asked what his goals are for the 2014 Major League Soccer season. Instead of a grand pronouncement, Magee’s response was to beat Chivas USA in the season opener Sunday.

Though the answer might have been somewhat disappointing for the gathered media, a victory against Chivas USA would help the Fire start better than it did last season, when it opened 1-4-1, played catch-up for most of the season and missed the playoffs after a loss to the New York Red Bulls on the final day of the season.

Obviously, the Fire knows the importance of avoiding another stumble to start 2014.

‘‘We mentioned it right away,’’ coach Frank Yallop said. ‘‘We’ve got to be consistent right through the season. We don’t talk about it a lot, but we know.’’

The Fire certainly learned that the hard way last season. Its strong 4-1-1 end to the season couldn’t make up for its start, leading to the end of Frank Klopas’ tenure and the start of Yallop’s.

Beating Chivas alone wouldn’t reverse that, but it would get the Fire’s season off on the right foot.

‘‘It’s really difficult when you drop so many points early to come back,’’ defender Bakary Soumare said. ‘‘It’s very important early on to just find the chemistry, get some points and get some momentum going.’’

Getting some more victories early isn’t the only change the Fire would like to make. Most notably, Yallop has looked to revamp a defense that gave up the second-most goals in the Eastern Conference last season (52).

Gone are defenders Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba, and Yallop has brought in Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Lovel Palmer and Patrick Ianni to play with holdovers Soumare and Gonzalo Segares.

Soumare, who likely will be paired with Hurtado in the middle of the back line, has liked what he has seen.

‘‘Everyone’s getting used to a new system and a new philosophy,’’ Soumare said. ‘‘We’re liking it, and we’re enjoying it. It’s just been really good.’’

So far, the results have been good. The Fire lost once in eight preseason games and allowed two goals.

‘‘That group’s done well,’’ Yallop said. ‘‘It’s worked hard in the preseason. No one’s 100 percent sure how ready we are, but I feel we’ve trained well.’’

That’s encouraging to Yallop, who tried to maintain much of the Fire’s identity despite the disappointing end to last season. Magee is back for his first full season, and the Fire was a different team with him last year. Now the hope is that it will carry over.

‘‘I wanted to keep the main core of those guys,’’ Yallop said. ‘‘They scored a lot of goals and conceded, I think, a couple too many at times.And that’s the reason I made the changes at the back — to hopefully help this team win more matches and hopefully don’t concede as many goals.’’

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