The last time I pronounced the Chicago Fire’s 2022 season dead, after the Columbus Crew debacle, the team went on a tear, winning four of five, rocketing themselves back into the playoff race.
I wrote after that stretch that I’ve never been happier to be wrong, but that we wouldn’t truly know if the Fire were any good until after this latest run against the three best teams in MLS’s Eastern Conference–the Philadelphia Union, NYCFC, and CF Montreal. Well, now we have a much clearer picture, and it’s not good.
The Fire are now losers of three straight, and none of the three matches were particularly close. The latest loss–a 2-0 defeat to CF Montreal on Saturday, saw the Fire fail to take advantage of a first half Montreal red card. Playing a man up for more than half the match, Chicago was content to move the ball slowly, rather than quickly trying to exploit the numerical advantage.
It didn’t help that the team’s highest paid player in history, Xherdan Shaqiri, asked to come out of yet another match–this time in only the 30th minute–after the team went down 2-0. Head coach Ezra Hendrickson explained that Shaqiri was “a little tight in the quad” and that it was “nothing serious.” The first few times this happened this season, fans were concerned. By now, though, everyone’s figured it out. Much like last week when he opted to play zero defense on NYCFC’s first goal, this is just what Shaq does. He’s treating MLS, and the Fire, as his World Cup preseason. None of this really seems to matter to him–it’s all about being fit in Qatar.
Shaqiri leads the team with 11 assists, and, in small flashes, he’s been brilliant. But what must his teammates think when their “leader” walks off the pitch right after going down 2-0? It was fitting that Shaqiri was replaced by Fabian Herbers–a guy with less skill but far more heart. Herbers made international headlines earlier this season for ripping Inter Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain’s poor attitude on his podcast. Now, it seems there’s a Higuain situation on his own team. I also feel for Hendrickson, who seems to have his hands tied. Shaqiri’s good enough that, if healthy, he needs to be on the pitch. But when he’s asking to come out, what is Hendrickson supposed to do? You’d have to think that if this were any other player, his ass would be parked on the bench for good.
After the match, it was Herbers who best summed up the team’s playoff chances.
“If we play like this, we have no chance,” the German midfielder said. “We don’t even have to talk about playoffs, you know, it’s not possible. We have to come together as a team and play better. Obviously, it’s still possible mathematically, but the chances have slimmed down and we dig ourselves a bigger hole every time.”
There’s no time to rest. The Fire travel to New England on Wednesday for a midweek match against the Revolution, then it’s on to Columbus on Saturday. Both teams are above the Fire in the table, right in the thick of the playoff race. All of the remaining seven matches are against teams in the East, and six of the seven are against teams battling for the final playoff spot (the lone exception is Sept. 13 in Montreal).
Sure, it’s still possible the Fire make the postseason. Mathematically, at least. FiveThirtyEight gives the Fire an eight percent chance! But, in year three of Georg Heitz’s tenure as sporting director, this team is in the exact same spot–below the playoff line, hoping for a spark to turn the season around. Merely making the playoffs is still the minimum measure of success, and fans are still being asked to be patient. Designated players are still drastically underperforming. Meanwhile, in Switzerland it’s still very early, but the Chicago’s sister club Lugano is in seventh out of 10 teams, and former Fire coach Raphael Wicky’s Young Boys top the table.
Heitz is still very much in charge. He was busy last week overhauling things at the Fire Academy. But, what measurable success has he demonstrated to continue to make such large decisions? How much more time does he get?
Look on the bright side, though. If the Fire miss the playoffs again, Shaqiri can use that extra month to rest up for the World Cup, and Heitz will get a longer offseason to work on his next rebuild.
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