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After a first half that showed a lot of promise, the Chicago Fire somehow managed to squander a 2-0 lead, losing to the Columbus Crew 3-2 in what was surely the most embarrassing performance of the season.
With the loss, the Fire are back in a familiar spot: last place in all of MLS. While they’re still just nine points out of the seventh and final playoff spot, the Fire proved in the second half Saturday they’re realistically nowhere remotely close to being a playoff team.
After a brilliant first half for the Fire that saw goals from Chris Mueller and Rafael Czichos, Crew head coach Caleb Porter made big changes at halftime, switching from a back three to a back four, bringing on wingers Derrick Etienne and Luis Diaz. Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson and his players had no answer for Porter’s moves, and watched the Crew dominate the half, torching Fire fullbacks Miguel Navarro and Jhon Espinoza at will, on the way to a massive comeback victory. Etienne finished with two goals, Diaz had two assists, and new signing Cucho Hernandez capped off the second half with the winner.
“We didn’t protect our lead and we didn’t protect the game, and we end up losing it,” Hendrickson, who spent the last few years as a Crew assistant before coming to the Fire, said. “When that happens like that, I guess, I have to take the blame because I know I can’t call the timeout and change things around, but I told them to expect these guys to come on in the second half because I knew they were on the bench, I know these players, I was with these guys for two and a half years so I knew it was coming. We just didn’t deal with it properly, as we should have. Because they change the game.”
What’s more, the Fire’s highest paid player in history, Xherdan Shaqiri, was subbed off in the 80th minute, when the game was tied at 2-2. After the match, Ezra Hendrickson made it a point to say his star player made the call to come out of the game.
“Well, Shaq is carrying a slight injury to his thigh,” Hendrickson said. “He asked to be taken out because it started to hurt, it was starting to hurt. So that was him asking to be taken out.”
Shaqiri has missed time this season for a laundry list of ailments and injuries, many of which have been described by Hendrickson as “slight” or “minor.” It seems the Swiss Designated Player cares more about not getting hurt before the 2022 World Cup than he does helping this Fire team win. The question is who’s letting him get away with this? Is it Ezra giving in to his star player? Is it Shaqiri’s countryman, Fire sporting director Georg Heitz? Or, if we’re giving Shaqiri the benefit of the doubt, and he really is a terrible injury waiting to happen, perhaps the Fire never should have signed him in the first place.
Adding insult to injury, Fire left back Miguel Navarro, after getting torched down this side for much of the second half, put in a dangerous challenge late in the match. It was initially deemed a second yellow, but was rightfully changed to a straight red after a VAR review. The Fire have shown a disastrous lack of discipline with fouls all season, with Navarro’s red marking a league-leading fifth for the team in just 19 games.
One of the game’s bright spots was Chris Mueller, who, with a goal and an assist, continues to be one of the Fire’s best players since signing with the club earlier this season–and his classy performance extended beyond the game. Fire staff made media members wait outside the locker room for an unusually long time after the loss, and when we were finally allowed inside, Mueller was one of the few players who hadn’t already bailed. He was ready and willing to answer tough questions.
Not captain Czichos, who several media members specifically requested. Not Shaqiri, either.
“Today we just lacked fight,” Mueller told reporters. “It wasn’t a lack of quality. I don’t lack belief in this group at all. Now it’s just about us coming together as a team when times are hard and trying to pick each other up and move on.”
Is losing games because of a lack of fight worse than losing because of a lack of talent?
“Damn near, because you can control your fight,” Mueller, who was clearly frustrated, said. “It definitely sucks to be losing games in areas you can control and the goals we let up have often been soft and it’s costing us crucial points.”
While Mueller, Jairo Torres and Jhon Durán all answered questions, Heitz repeatedly poked his head around the corner of a wall near the team’s catering spread, munching on a bread roll, peering out to see when the media would be gone. At one point, owner Joe Mansueto walked through the somber locker room, patted Gaga Slonina on the back, and disappeared around a corner.
Navarro showed again the Fire lack discipline. Mueller said the group lacked fight. But, with the same issues plaguing the team over and over, it’s clear this club lacks something bigger: accountability.
Something must change. Heitz’s run as Fire sporting director has been littered with so many terrible losses it’s hard to remember them all. It’s been disappointing by any measure. For this one to stand out as exceptionally bad shows something. While there have been occasional bright spots, there has been zero measurable progress–at least from a wins and losses perspective–in Heitz’s three years on the job. None. During that same time, three expansion teams–Austin, Nashville and Charlotte–have all entered the league, and are all now sitting in playoff spots.
It’s time for a fresh approach in the front office. Give him the rest of the summer window, or even the rest of this season. At this point, though, it likely won’t matter. Heitz has failed, and he should be fired.
Fire fans deserve better than this.
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