Every time Alex Campbell and I solicit questions for our CHGO Fire Podcast mailbag, there’s always one question that goes something like this:

This team is great on paper, but continues to struggle on the field. How much of this is on Ezra Hendrickson?

Sometimes, it’s more direct:

This team is a disaster. Should the Fire dump Ezra Hendrickson?

Through 18 games, slightly over half of the 34 game regular season, the Fire are back in last place in the Eastern Conference. Under first-year head coach Hendrickson, the Fire sit with just four wins, five draws, and nine losses, and are eight points back of the final playoff spot.

For a team that made such a splash during the off season, signing Xherdan Shaqiri to a league record $8.15 million a year deal, bringing in young Mexican star Jairo Torres, proven MLS scorer Kacper Przybylko, and veteran Bundesliga centerback Rafael Czichos, the Fire have been poor, at least going forward. Czichos, for his part, has been really solid, as has the Fire’s defense most of the time.

But the attack? It’s been a disaster. Przybylko, who had the third most goals in MLS since 2019, can’t score. Jairo Torres has barely played in his two-plus months here. And Xherdan Shaqiri has shown flashes of what we expected, but it’s added up to one non-penalty goal (with two others coming off penalties) and six assists (not bad), in 1152 minutes spread across 14 games.

This isn’t working. Again.

Ezra’s not a dumb guy. He knows what’s you’re thinking. The problem is, he’s preaching something Fire fans are, rightfully, beyond tired of hearing–patience.

“We just have to keep calm, we just have to keep confident and continue to believe in what it is that we’re doing,” he said this week. “It’s something that we know that wasn’t going to happen overnight but as long as we’re seeing progress we have to continue to remain confident in that.”

I have, to this point, laughed off questions about whether Ezra should be fired. I still think he deserves more time. But, this team is a playoff contender on paper, and for that reason, at least some of the blame should fall on Hendrickson’s shoulders. But, I don’t think it’s time to consider firing him, yet.

Saturday will mark his first matchup as head coach against his old team–the Columbus Crew–where he was an assistant under Caleb Porter the last few seasons before coming to Chicago. It’s the first of three straight games at home, and four out of five at Soldier Field. The Fire will need to rotate to make it through this stretch, so it’s a great time to drop the ice-cold Przybylko in favor of Jhon Durán, to see what he can do. Hendrickson also must find a way to get Brian Gutierrez more minutes, which might mean playing him out wide. He’s been one of the brightest spots on the team this season, and he deserves to be more than just Shaqiri’s backup at the 10.

I said on the CHGO Fire Podcast this week that the Fire need to take 12 out of the next 15 points to truly get back into the playoff race. That means nine points in the next three games. It’s now, or never.

“These three games, we need nine points and we are going to go out and get all nine points,” Hendrickson said. “But the first and most important is this first one against Columbus.”

The Fire host Columbus at Soldier Field at 7 p.m. on Saturday. There are fireworks planned after the match. Hopefully, Ezra and Co. have some in store for the game, too.

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Chicago Fire beat writer and podcast host for CHGO. Youth soccer coach. Exhausted dad. Former TV news reporter. Taco enthusiast. Follow me on Twitter @patrickmccraney.