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The Chicago Fire ‘need more’ from Nemanja Nikolic, other key players

Mar 16, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic (23) looks to score against the Seattle Sounders during the first half at Bridgeview Stadium. (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The Chicago Fire’s defensive struggles were in the spotlight during the Fire’s 4-2 loss to the Seattle Sounders at home Saturday, but key players aren’t yet producing. Here’s a look at that and other things that stood out.

Nemanja Nikolić’s less-than-smooth start to season

The 31-year-old is 17 months removed from winning the MLS Golden Boot, which he followed up with 15 goals in 2018. However, with the Fire trailing 3-1 at home in the second half, coach Veljko Paunović took Nikolić out of the match.

Nikolić traveled, but didn’t play in the season opener after his wife gave birth earlier that week. The Fire left for LA a few days early to get better training conditions, as opposed to practicing inside in Chicagoland in February. Nikolić rejoined the team later after missing a couple training sessions.

The following week against Orlando, Nikolić started, but was subbed off in the 68th minute. The Fire went down to 10 men just before Nikolić’s sub. He missed two golden chances early in the match.

Nikolić again failed to score Saturday against Seattle. He had one shot, which was his first shot on target of the season. Meanwhile, C.J. Sapong, whose first training session with the Fire was four days before the start of the season, has two goals and an assist so far.

“I think he, as the rest of the team, has to find his form,” Paunović said of Nikolić. “He’s still not there. We are not worried about it, but we need from our big guys, we need more. We need from him and we need from the guys who have experience to bring more to the table.”

It would be understandable if Nikolić was emotionally and/or physically drained from having a newborn at home. That said, the Fire need Nikolić to be back to his usual, efficient self soon.

Lack of left back options on display

Jorge Corrales started at left back each of the first two matches of the season and struggled in both. He made costly mistakes in LA and was given a red card the next week against Orlando.

His suspension left Paunović with few options at left back. Raheem Edwards could be the starter there, but is working his way back from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two matches.

Nicolas Hasler started against the Sounders and was burned by Jordan Morris on the first goal of the match. With the Fire trailing 2-0 early, Hasler was taken out in the 35th minute.

“It’s not his usual position and he did his best, but it wasn’t a good idea from me,” Paunović said. “I wanted to help the team and I apologized to him in front of the whole team for the early sub, but I wanted to help the team as soon as possible and we didn’t have time to give to our opponent.”

Edwards replaced Hasler. Edwards scored a goal, but said he still isn’t fully match fit. He admitted he was surprised he came into the match so early.

“The idea was to take me off the bench and give me a couple minutes to get me match fitness,” Edwards said.

Do Fire have to change formations?

Paunović has always preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation, but has, at times, during his tenure gone to a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2. When Edwards entered the match, he moved from the 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2. It seemed to help, but the Fire were already chasing a two-goal deficit at that point. The Sounders were content to allow the Fire to control the play for stretches of the match.

With Nicolás Gaitán coming in, the Fire will have another attacker, but Gaitán won’t improve the defense. In order to get the best players on the field at the same time, Paunović may need to move to the 3-5-2 more consistently.

Meanwhile, Paunović continues to stress that the defensive issues aren’t isolated to the back line.

“When you look at our goals, sometimes it’s after the loss (of the ball), after the individual mistakes we make in the midfield, after some misunderstandings in the back line or it could be also in the communication between the lines, the whole team,” Paunović said. “Obviously it’s not good. It’s not good at all, but we will keep working and try to fix it.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger said the defense hasn’t been that bad as far as allowing chances. Key mistakes have led to goals.

“The first two shots, two goals, just mistakes, easy ball losses,” Schweinsteiger said. “Then you’re two-zero down, not easy. Then we changed systems. We got better into the game. We had some chances.”

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