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The MLS Wrap: Fire lean on rookies in big win and the best of week 8

6:07 AM WAT 24/04/2018
Mo Adams Kaku MLS Chicago Fire 04212018
Veljko Paunovic turned to rookies to help the Chicago Fire knock off the New York Red Bulls and his youngsters delivered

Major League Soccer saw several streaks come to an end in an eventful eighth week of the regular season.

New York City FC's impressive unbeaten run to start the season came to an end in Portland, Seattle's winless streak to begin 2018 also ran its course, as did Osvaldo Alonso's absence from the starting lineup. The New York Red Bulls' home dominance was halted by the Chicago Fire, while Los Angeles FC ended its season-opening six-match road trip with its fourth victory. 

Not every streak came to an end in MLS action. FC Dallas finished the weekend as the league's lone remaining unbeaten after disposing of the Philadelphia Union, which saw their winless slide reach five matches. Sporting KC pushed its unbeaten run to a league-best seven matches, doing so in emphatic fashion, while Atlanta United pushed its current run to six unbeaten after dominating the LA Galaxy at StubHub Center on Saturday night.

Those who tuned in to watch Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Saturday's headlining match saw little from the Swedish star, but did see Atlanta United flash the attacking quality that has Tata Martino's men looking like the most dangerous team in the league.

VAR made a big impact in several matches, including in Real Salt Lake's win against Colorado — where Tim Howard was ejected for a handball outside the penalty area, and Sporting KC's win, which saw both Yordy Reyna and Efrain Juarez ejected following a dustup with Johnny Russell.

These are just some of the storylines from the weekend. Here is a closer look at MLS Week 8:


Fire lean on youngsters to climb out of early hole


Since the 2018 MLS season began, it was clear the Chicago Fire needed to make some roster upgrades. As impressive as last season was for the Fire — a season that saw them go from laughing stock to playoff team — any hope of being able to improve in 2018 was going to require considerable investment. This was especially true in the stacked Eastern Conference, where several teams made significant upgrades.

Landing those upgrades has taken longer than the Fire would have hoped for, thus leading to a slow start out of the blocks that saw Chicago stumble to an 0-2-1 record to start the season. Even the team's first win — a 1-0 triumph against the Columbus Crew — came with the disclaimer that the Fire were thoroughly outplayed. After a lackluster 1-0 loss to the LA Galaxy, Fire captain Dax McCarty was truthful when evaluating the team's performance. 

"We’re below average right now and the results speak to that," McCarty told reporters. "It’s not easy times right now, we’re just lacking a little bit of quality all over the field. That’s the brutal honest truth. You have to be honest with yourself. When you reflect on teams and on games, you have to be honest and say that we’ve been second-best most of the season."

Whether it was responding to their captain, or responding for the desperate need for early-season points, the Fire played their best match of the season in Saturday's 2-1 win against the New York Red Bulls. Goalkeeper Richard Sanchez and winger Aleksandar Katai were vital in securing the victory, but so were a trio of rookies given starting nods by Veljko Paunovic. Midfielder Mo Adams, central defender Grant Lillard and forward Ethan Collier all put in good shifts for the Fire,  while rookie midfielder Diego Campos came off the bench and gave the Fire some fresh legs to help close out the victory. 

Adams was the most impressive of the Fire's rookies, containing Kaku and playing like a veteran despite the fact Saturday marked his professional debut.

"He was unbelievable. I thought Mo, he showed no fear," McCarty told Goal. "That's the one thing you can't do when you step on the field and play your first pro game. You have to be confident and he was and I thought he did his job. He broke up plays. He won his tackles. He won his battles. Against the Red Bulls, half the battle is winning second balls and making sure that they have trouble playing through the middle. You're not going to stop them every time, but for the most part I thought Mo and I had a good connection and we tried our best to stimy them and make them go out wide, and it made for a frustrating afternoon. Kaku is a big talent, they bought him for a lot of money, and I thought he didn't have a big influence in the game and I thought that was down to Mo having a great game."

A product of the Nottingham Forest and Derby County academy systems, Adams finished Saturday with a team-high 12 recoveries, one of the highest totals posted in the league in Week 8. The 11th overall pick in the 2018 MLS draft, the Syracuse University product looked comfortable playing alongside McCarty and in front of Bastian Schweinsteiger, showing off the qualities that helped him impress the Fire coaching staff and his new teammates since the preseason.

"You could see that there was something there," McCarty added. "We're constantly working with him on his positioning. You want a guy like that to play to his instincts because he has good instincts defensively. It's just working with a guy like that, giving him confidence, making sure he plays simple, and then does his job on the other side of the ball. He's a pit bull defensively."

Adams credited McCarty and Schweinsteiger with helping him have such an impressive pro debut.

"They're some of the best players to play in this league, and maybe in the world with Basti, but having him behind me he's always communicating to me," Adams said. "Having Dax beside me makes my job so much easier because of the position he takes up. He's always in a good spot to find him for a pass or maybe in a defensive spot to make me do less running."

Lillard, a homegrown player signing developed in the Fire academy before a standout career at Indiana University, played a steady match in Chicago's three-man defense, helping limit the Red Bulls to one goal. Collier, a 6-foot-4 rookie striker from New Zealand, didn't get on the scoresheet but did contribute by being active defensively and a physical presence for Red Bulls defenders to have to deal with.

"I think that our rookies are fantastic. They've been brilliant," McCarty said. "They've tried to make plays, and tried to do the right things. We're just young, we're a young group and you're never ever going to have a perfect scenario where you put young guys on the field and they're going to click and do everything right away."

After Saturday's win, McCarty made a point to address his comments from a week earlier, which were construed in some circles as him taking a shot at his own team. 

"I think a lot was made of my comments last week talking about we're below average right now," McCarty said. "Where we are in the standings speak to that. People tend to take that stuff and construe something that isn't there. If you look at the standings, we're below average. That is a fact, you can't argue that. You have to be honest about it and you have to improve, and we were lacking quality in the attacking half of the field and the defensive half, and you have to make plays in both boxes if you want to win.

"It's not just the young guys, it was everybody. We were just lacking a little bit of quality," McCarty said. "People want to make a big deal out of these comments and almost make it seem like I'm saying we dont have good players in the locker room — we have great players in the locker room. We're just needing to have a little bit more quality to get good results, therefore we'll get more results and move up the standings."

The Fire are still on the hunt for some quality additions to the roster, with an attacking midfielder and central defender heading the shopping list for general manager Nelson Rodriguez. With the MLS transfer window set to close in a week, time is running out to add the kind of players that would help the Fire continue to climb up the highly-competitive Eastern Conference, and if the Fire can't find those upgrades they are looking for, then Paunovic will need to continue to count on their rookie class to fill the void, which they did on Saturday.

"It's all credit to the coach for how the rookies are playing," Adams told Goal. "He trusts us and every time we go onto the field an opportunity is given to us and it's up to us whether we take it or not. He shows the faith in us to start three rookies and we have to make the most of it." 


Best of MLS Week 8


PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Johnny Russell scored a hat-trick, drew a penalty kick and managed to have two Vancouver players ejected in Sporting KC's 6-0 romp over the Whitecaps.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: The Portland Timbers handed NYCFC its first loss of the season, and also became the first team to hold NYCFC without a goal in 13 regular season matches. 

ROOKIE OF THE WEEK: Chris Mueller has become the early frontrunner for MLS Rookie of the Year honors, and his goal and assist in Orlando City's 3-2 win against San Jose made him an easy pick this week.

GOAL OF THE WEEK: In a week where there were several incredible goals, Aleksandar Katai's volley finish was the pick of the litter in week eight: