With a spot in the playoffs still very much in the picture, the Chicago Fire came out of the gate with a flat, uninspired, disinterested performance in a 2-0 loss to NYCFC at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview.
In all sports, but especially in soccer, there are many times where one team is simply better than the other. Fans and media will overreact to a loss, but the simple fact is better teams force mistakes upon bad teams. Sunday night, that wasn’t the case. After four straight without a win, NYCFC was content to sit in a low block and defend, but the Fire couldn’t, or, perhaps worse, didn’t care to pounce on the limping defending champions.
Why? Why would a team with so much to play for come out with no fight?
“I wish I could give you an explanation but I don’t have one because, as I just told them inside, that was very disappointing,” Fire coach Ezra Hendrickson said. “That was by far our worst performance this year. And to give that type of performance at this time of the year, this crucial, critical time of the season, it’s just not acceptable.”
Several times during his news conference, Hendrickson placed the blame squarely on his shoulders, saying it was his job to have the players ready to play, and they weren’t. But Hendrickson can’t make his players run, or defend, or pay attention to the game.
Five bad moments that killed the game
On NYCFC’s first goal, Gabriel Pereira found himself in an ocean of space a few yards outside the Fire’s 18-yard-box, and cracked a perfectly placed shot to the right upper 90, which gave Gaga Slonina almost no chance to save it. But it was what happened before that which summed up the Fire’s day: with both defensive midfielders pulled wide marking others, Xherdan Shaqiri watched Pereira run right by him into space before he received the pass, and made zero effort–not even a light jog–to try to keep up. Chris Mueller came flying in soon after, Boris Sekulić tried to step but he was late, Carlos Terán watched flat-footed, and Pereira was allowed to shoot with little resistance.
Some might argue that it’s not Shaqiri’s job to defend, that he’s paid to score and assist. While that’s partially true, it’s 2022, and even star attacking players need to defend at least sometimes. What would Jurgen Klopp have said if Shaqiri had pulled that at Liverpool?
Here’s what Shaqiri said when I asked him about the goal:
“It was a nice shot to be fair, he put it in the correct corner. It was difficult to defend this.”
And here’s his answer, after I pressed him on why Pereira found himself in so much space:
“We can defend better, everybody, and we have to show our mistakes and try to do better in the next game. Simple.”
Weak answer, to be sure.
In contrast, Fire captain Rafael Czichos took a lot more ownership of his role in NYCFC’s second goal. A minute or so into the second half, Czichos was dispossessed by a pressing Pereira, and Santiago Rodriguez won the ball and slotted home the 2-0 goal. It looked like Pereira fouled Czichos on the play, but the VAR official determined it was clean.
After the match, Czichos took blame, even though Pereira clearly stepped on his foot.
“I don’t know if he touched me,” Czichos said. “I think the situation was over or I thought the situation was over. Then I got the ball, I didn’t see the guy coming from the left and then I tried everything to find the solution to get out of the situation. Unfortunately, he didn’t whistle and yeah, second goal, and then it’s really hard to come back against New York City FC.”
It wasn’t just the two goals that burned the Fire. There were plenty of other examples of poor play and weird decisions. At one point toward the end of the first half, Mauricio Pineda was driving down the right sideline with the ball. Jairo Torres, who was ineffective for most of the day, inexplicably slowed down with his back turned right in front of Pineda, clogging the area and causing a turnover. Torres could have run forward or sideways to pull his mark away from the charging Pineda, but instead he made the worst possible decision.
The Fire also had trouble switching the point of attack over the top of NYCFC’s low block, especially with Gastón Giménez missing from the match. Several long balls were nowhere near the player open in space on the opposite side of the field, and when they did arrive, poor first touches forced turnovers more often than not.
After Carlos Terán went down after re-injuring his hamstring, which was not entirely unexpected considering he injured it fairly recently, Hendrickson opted to bring on Brian Gutierrez as a wingback and switch to a 3-5-2. The Fire looked confused in the system, and it failed to produce a goal. To Hendrickson’s credit, however, he was able to explain after the match what he was thinking.
“We were down 2-0 at the time too so putting another defender on probably wasn’t the right thing,” Hendrickson said. “We wanted to somehow get Chris (Mueller) and Guti on the wings, with Jairo and Shaq and Fabi (Herbers) in the middle, with (Jhon) Duran. You know, just try and get some more attacking players on the pitch rather than come in with another centerback.”
The loss leaves the Fire in 12th, five points back of seventh place Columbus. The Crew have a game in hand, too, meaning it’s now looking like it might take 47 or even 48 points to make the postseason.
Even if it’s only 46, that means the Fire will now have to average two points-per-game in their final eight. For a team that was on such an upswing a couple weeks ago, these last two losses have really hurt.
“We just gotta remain confident and I gotta make sure I instill that confidence in them, that we have not reached our ceiling, that our ceiling is above the line,” Hendrickson said of his team’s chances.
The window’s shrinking, but it’s not completely closed. The Fire host second-placed CF Montreal Saturday night back at Soldier Field, where three points will again be an absolute must. Let’s see if, this time, the players treat it that way from the opening whistle.
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