Moments after the Chicago Fire came off the pitch after a 3-2 loss to the Columbus Crew on July 9, players and coaches held a meeting to reflect on what had just happened. Up 2-0 at halftime, the Fire lost 3-2 to the Crew. They were out-played, out-worked, and out-coached by their rivals from Ohio.
“We sat down, we talked,” Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson explained. “And it was an open forum, you know, what can we do as a team to change this bad luck, so to speak, that we were having. How are we losing games that we should tie, and tying games that we should win. How can we change that? More so, it was just bonding together and saying, you know what, it stops. There’s no way we can be at home and let up in that last 27 or 30 minutes like that. That’s never going to happen again.”
It’s common for the Fire to reflect after matches, but this time things were different. The Fire had blown leads and dropped points in many other games this season, and had created chances without actually scoring goals. But the Crew loss was the final straw. It was that bad.
“Too many games, we let go by the wayside,” Hendrickson said. “Too many times we created so many chances, even on the road, to go up on teams two-or three-nothing and just miss chances and that was killing us. So I think from that meeting and the confidence that it’s possible for us to come back and save the season, so to speak. I think both of those situations helped us.”
Since hitting rock bottom, the Fire are winners of three straight, and have a chance to jump above the playoff line for the first time in months with a win Saturday over Atlanta United. Midfielder Mauricio Pineda, who’s been a massive part of the Fire’s nine-point winning streak, said that meeting after the Crew loss was a turning point.
“After that game, we agreed that we have to self-reflect more than anything and see if we are really doing everything possible for the team to come out on top after every game and doing that in every training session, every game obviously and everything that you’re doing to prepare for training every day,” Pineda said. “So I think that’s something that was really important that needed to be said, and needed it to be talked about. And luckily it’s something that worked. Some of those things don’t always work if you don’t take it seriously and put into action in training and games but, like I said, I think the team took that really well and has shown more positive moments since that game.”
Ezra in the Mirror
After a career spanning more than two decades as a player and assistant coach, Hendrickson is 22 games into his first season as a head coach in Major League Soccer. He comes across as intelligent and commanding, and he brings so much experience to the role, it’s easy to forget he’s actually a rookie.
This season has gone anything but smoothly, and Hendrickson puts a lot of blame on himself for the mishaps this season. But, he’s not settling. It’s evident Hendrickson is constantly thinking about what he can do better, and what more he can do to grow into the head coaching role.
When we asked Hendrickson to reflect on what he’s learned in his first 22 matches at his weekly media availability, he took a breath, said “wow,” then spoke for the better part of the next five minutes about what he wishes he could have done differently, mistakes he’s made, and areas where he’s grown. Here’s what he said, it its entirety. It’s worth your time to read his entire answer:
“I’ve had many learning experiences. You know, be it the Open Cup game, I think maybe, not so much player selection because we played who we had. But maybe in-game substitution in that game probably came a little later than I should have made them so that’s something that I look back at and I think about. But at the time I was worried about if it went into over time, exerting too much energy on the guys that we have because we didn’t really have a full squad at the time so I was worried about putting guys in too soon just in case it went into overtime. So that’s probably, if I look back at that, that was a big learning experience for me where if I had to do that over again, I’ll just play the guys, and if they end up having to play 120 minutes, then so be it. So that’s one thing I learned.
“Other things, there’s some games that we let slip away from us, and I take responsibility for that. Whenever we don’t close games out. I talk about the New York Red Bull games away, the Toronto game away, when we don’t finish out games like those, I look at myself and I said, okay, what could I have done differently. Again, maybe a substitution sooner might have changed those games.
“At the end of the day, you know, I put the players out on the pitch and if the players make mistakes that cost us the game, that reflects on me: Did I have the right player in the right position; did I put them in the right position to succeed?
“So I take blame for some of those things. So I learn from those things. I promise to make sure that things are done better; that we won’t go through those things again. We’ve improved somewhat but we’re a team that’s growing and when I took this job, one of the things I said was there will be growing pains. I, as a first-year coach, have gone through some of those growing pains with the team as a whole as far as some of my decision-making.
“But you know, we’re still learning. We’re continuing to grow as a team. I think we’ve grown. We’ve progressed a lot further along than most probably expected.
“But when I look at what transpired in the Columbus game and how the team was able to respond since, you know, that to me shows a lot growth in the team because it was very easy for that team, after that game, losing that game in that manner, at home, to just pack it in and say, you know what, we’ve tried everything, we’ve been leading teams with a minute to go and tied games, we’ve out-shot, out-possessed other teams the entire game and lose games. So it was really easy for the team to say, you know what, it’s just not working. But these guys responded from that game and came out in that Toronto game and just really jumped on them from the start and got a goal in the first five minutes. For me that shows the growth of a team, and we’ve since continued to grow and continued with that momentum.
“We are not there yet, even in the last game, Vancouver, we had moments, the last two minutes of the first half, we are not going to survive too many of those type of errors that we created; that we caused by ourselves towards the end of that first half.
“But we came in at halftime, we talked about it and even when they tied it up, we knew that this was our game and we were in control of the game and we weren’t going to lose it, even though we were on the road, and finished out that game. That shows me a lot; that the players have really bought into what it is that we’re doing. We’re on a good streak right now and we just want to continue that. We’ve always said that Soldier Field would be our fortress. And Atlanta is a team that, of all the games when we look back as a team and the players are well aware of it, it’s the one game that we thought got away from us at the start.
“Yes, they caught us a little shorthanded, and we didn’t have four or five starters at the time, due to suspensions or injuries, or what-have-you and we are not the same team that we were then but it’s a game that we look back on and said listen, if there was game we never was really in it, that was it, and we want to make amends to our fans and ourselves and continue this momentum.
“So Saturday we are really going to be prepared for this game for several reasons, but mainly just to continue to grow as a team.”
It’s clear in his first season on the job, Ezra Hendrickson’s harshest critic is himself.
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