In what was certainly the most entertaining match of the season, the Chicago Fire took one more step toward proving they’re for real, beating expansion side Charlotte FC 3-2 Saturday night. The Fire have now taken 13 points off the last five games, and with 10 matches to go, they’re above the playoff line for the first time since early in the season.
It was a match packed with surprises, conflicts, some sloppiness, and, ultimately for the Fire, a lot of guts and guile. Ezra Hendrickson’s side proved they had the mental toughness to win after going down almost immediately, and did it with both starting centerbacks out for the match. Striker Kacper Przybylko, who was previously ice-cold, scored a beautiful brace. He was back in the starting lineup over Jhon Durán, who Hendrickson said was not benched for his midweek comments on Instagram about wanting to leave the Fire. It was instead a tactical decision, and it paid off.
“I’m very, very happy about the goals,” the Polish striker said after the match. “So, so, close for my first hat trick. Kind of annoyed by it but at the end of the day the most important is the victory for the team.”
It was a massive win for the Fire, but there are still big questions that remain for the final 10 games:
Is Kacper Przybylko’s slump over?
Jhon Durán was solid in his place, but a healthy, successful Przybylko will go a long way to propel the Fire into the playoffs. Early on in the season Przybylko scored a brace against Sporting Kansas City, but then returned to his slump immediately after. This time, he’ll have a chance to prove he can continue his goal scoring form against his old club, the first place Philadelphia Union, next weekend. Can he keep this rolling?
Is Xherdan Shaqiri about to hit a new level?
Don’t look now, but Shaqiri is sitting on 10 assists, which is inching closer to the top of the MLS assist list. Since the Columbus failure the Swiss star has looked fresher, healthier, and a lot closer to the player the Fire thought they were getting. Shaqiri has the quality to be the best No. 10 in the league, it’s just a matter of staying injury-free and being mentally switched on and bought in. Finding his stride now is great for both Shaq, who will go from the MLS season straight into the FIFA World Cup, and his club teammates, who will rely on him to keep breaking lines and unbalancing defenses with his play.
Can the Fire beat the big guns in the East?
We’ll know soon enough. The Fire’s next three come against Philly (No. 1), NYCFC (No. 2), and Djordje Mihailovic’s Montreal (No. 3). It’s a brutal stretch for Chicago, who will need to continue to pick up points to keep pace with their playoff line rivals. The Fire are one of four teams sitting on 30 points, and positions 5-13 are separated by just seven points. The Fire could finish the month anywhere from fourth to thirteenth.
Will the defense hold up down the stretch?
Rafael Czichos was a late scratch with a non-Covid related illness, and with Jonathan Bornstein filling in as a left-sided centerback, Charlotte was able to score in the opening minutes. Luckily, the veteran Bornstein settled in nicely in what was his 200th career MLS appearance, and the Fire pulled off the win. Mauricio Pineda will continue to start at the right-sided spot while Carlos Terán and Wyatt Omsberg get healthy, and, hopefully, Czichos will be healthy enough to go against Philly. Chicago couldn’t get a deal done at the deadline for an additional centerback, so things are razor thin back there.
Perhaps the answer to all of these questions comes down to this: The Fire need to find ways to not beat themselves–they can’t “shoot themselves in the foot,” as Hendrickson put it. If they get outplayed by better teams, so be it. But they can’t succumb to mental errors or a lack of fight. Over these last five games, they’ve shown they can do it. The Fire can play with anyone. Now it’s just a matter of keeping this rolling, and the Fire will be back in the postseason for the first time since 2017.
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