Veljko Paunovic

Fire look toward three-match homestand to move past loss in Atlanta

Things didn't go as planned Saturday for the Chicago Fire, who were dealt a setback before a ball was even kicked on Saturday afternoon and ultimately dropped a 4-0 outcome at Atlanta United FC.

Forward Michael de Leeuw was announced as a late scratch from the starting XI as a result of a hamstring injury, missing just his second match since debuting for the Fire on July 9 of last season. In his stead, Luis Solignac stepped in to play up top and Nemanja Nikolic slipped into the withdrawn role that de Leeuw had occupied thus far in the Fire’s opening two matches of 2017.

In front of a Bobby Dodd Stadium crowd of an announced 46,000 fans, head coach Veljko Paunovic’s men took the field against a dynamic Atlanta side and one of the more hostile environments they're likely to face this season. An unfortunate start put Atlanta on the board early, as a Julian Gressel cross took a deflection off the foot of defender Brandon Vincent and into goalkeeper Jorge Bava’s net to give the home crowd a reason to celebrate in the game’s fourth minute.

To complicate things, Johan Kappelhof was shown red in 11th minute of the match. Atlanta forward Josef Martinez found himself on the ball just behind the Dutch defender, who was prompted to make a hard play on Martinez to prevent a breakaway opportunity. The earliest red card in club history forced Paunovic to make an unforeseen change to his side, sending on centerback Jonathan Campbell in place of the attack-minded Arturo Alvarez.

“I think the game very early started bad for us and we weren’t capable of reacting and adjusting," Paunovic said afterward. "But it’s a part of the game. The game is behind us and all I have to say is that we have to do better. We have to learn from this and improve.”

Although the Fire did well to reach halftime still just a goal down, a comeback became a tough proposition against the potent Atlanta attack as the Fire were mostly forced to defend collectively for the remainder of the match.

Now, with the international break ahead of them to reflect and reassess, they’ll look to return to the form that earned them four points in two games, setting off on a key three-match homestand against a trio of Eastern Conference opponents that currently stand level with or below the Men In Red in point totals thus far. The stretch begins against the Montreal Impact on Saturday, April 1 (2 p.m. CT, CSN Chicago Plus).

"Playing with a man down, 10 men, it’s never easy, and even more difficult when you don’t have a good result," Paunovic said. "So we move forward. We are looking to our next three games at home as very important games and we have to prepare better, we have to do a better job.”