To say the 2018 season has been a difficult one for Chicago Fire fans would be a hell of an understatement.
On the pitch, the Men In Red have posted historically awful results and were effectively knocked out of the playoff race months before the end of the year. Off the pitch, it’s been even worse. The discourse among Fire supporters has been marked by anger and despair all year. Yet, for the first time in a long time, watching the Fire brought some measure of joy.
There were moments on Sunday when it felt like 2017 all over again. Chicago grabbed an early goal for the first time in months, but more to the point, they actually managed to build on that advantage. The Fire knew they were the better team and they put that belief into practice. Every mistake Orlando made was punished. And when the visitors started to push their way back in the game, Chicago did well to lock things down with solid defending and crush Orlando’s hopes with a third and fourth goal.
So often this team has had to fight tooth and nail for to try and get a result. It was nice for the players to turn on cruise control this week— and for fans to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle on a warm sunny day at Toyota Park.
You could tell the players were having fun on Sunday, too. They’ve been put in an unenviable position this season, owing to poor results combined with whatever Front Office nonsense is going on behind the scenes. On Sunday they played their soccer unburdened, like the rest of the season hadn’t happened. Nemanja Nikolic scored a brace and showed flashes of the same player who won the Golden Boot last year. Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic looked like the players they were before their ACL tears. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Aleksandar Katai spent the day toying with Orlando players like cats with cornered mice. Even Richard Sanchez had a good game, just to drive home home how different this team looked.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t still problems. The atmosphere in the stadium was close to nonexistent, with the stands populated mostly by families. (It’s nice to see kids at Fire games, don’t get me wrong, but you need a balance that includes the kind of loud organized support that kids just can’t offer.) Scattered attempts to get “Let’s Go Fire” chants going quickly died out. The biggest downer of the night came when those same families started filing out of the stadium well before the final whistle, confident that the Fire had the game handled and wanting to beat traffic. You can’t expect families with kids to abide by “first in last out,” but someone has to, and those someones have been told by the Front Office in no uncertain terms that they’re unwelcome.
And of course, the Fire’s comfortable win was likely down to the quality of the opposition. Orlando City, to be frank, looked like a USL side. Their passing was off all day. Their finishing was sloppy. The players looked like they had checked out. Their season, like the Fire’s, has been over for a while now. The visitors seemed to be focused more on staying healthy than trying to get a result. As woeful as they were, they were still able to carve out some chances for themselves. Had Dom Dwyer been more on his game, they could’ve made things much more uncomfortable for their hosts. The Fire may have been good enough to beat the worst team in the Eastern Conference on the day, but they’re not yet at the point where they can replicate Sunday’s success against better teams.
But, that is a worry for the future. For now, fans should enjoy the temporary high while it lasts, before the harsh realities surrounding the club snap back into focus.