If ever there was a loss to be proud of, this might be it. But, in the end, it wasn’t pride the Chicago Fire needed tonight. It was points, and the Fire walked away with none.
After giving up a penalty early for a handball, and then playing with ten men for more than an hour after a controversial red card, the Fire narrowly lost to the league leading Philadelphia Union 2-1 Wednesday night at Subaru Park in Chester, PA.
“It’s just very frustrating to lose a game like that, but I’m proud of the reaction of the guys, of the effort they put in,” Fire Head Coach Raphael Wicky said after the match. “Never gave up and never were exposed to lose three, four, five, six, one, which could easily happen here.”
Philadelphia opened the scoring in the 28th minute when Kacper Przybylko converted a penalty, which was awarded after Fire defender Francisco Calvo was called for a handball in the box. The handball was clear, but was the kind of call PRO referees have let slide many times this season.
“The problem is there is no consistency over the whole year in these moments,” Wicky said. “It’s a ball which is crossed. It deflects, and from two or three meters or four meters, it hits the hand of a defender. That’s the way I saw it live. I haven’t seen the images, but the problem is there’s no consistency of hand balls over the whole season. That’s a problem.”
Eight minutes later the match turned on its head when referee Guido Gonzales gave a straight red card to Calvo for stepping on the back of Alejandro Bedoya’s foot, citing violent conduct. As Bedoya flailed on the ground, several Fire players protested the call, but Gonzales wasn’t swayed. As was the case with the handball, Gonzales opted to not use video review, and the Fire would have to play with ten men for the remainder of the match.
“The red card, I can’t say,” Wicky said. “I have to watch the pictures. Only thing I can say, it wasn’t a nasty game. It wasn’t a game where there was a lot of nasty, hard fouls and suddenly you have to have a red card. Francisco is a player who never, never tries to hurt anyone. Never tries intentionally to make a foul or anything. That’s just what I can say. I haven’t seen the images. People have told me it’s not a red card, but that’s all I can say.”
The Fire fought back in the 42nd minute to equalize the game. After a long rebound from Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, Djordje Mihailović held the ball in bounds, and served up a beautiful cross to Robert Berić for the goal. The header was Berić’s tenth goal of the season, good enough for the third-best total in MLS. Berič has scored eight of those goals since the beginning of September, two more than anyone else in the league during that stretch.
“I think we had a great reaction,” said midfielder Gastón Giménez, who slid back to play center back in Calvo’s absence. “We fought hard and it was very difficult when you’re playing with one man down, especially from so early on almost the whole game, and especially against a great team, but we were in there fighting, battling hard, and it’s difficult when they make things a little bit one-sided and it seems that the fouls are going mostly one-way.”
The Union found the game winner in the 65th minute, when substitute Cory Burke headed a ball down into the path of Bobby Shuttleworth, who couldn’t stop the bounce from hitting the back of the net. Shuttleworth was stellar on the night with five saves in all, but couldn’t stop this one. On the play, several Fire defenders were caught ball watching, and appeared confused on marking assignments—probably in part due to the fact that Calvo was gone from the back line.
Chicago nearly equalized in the 92nd minute, when Mauricio Pineda got on the end of a Mihailović free kick, but Union forward Andrew Wooten cleared it off the line, and Philadelphia held on for the victory, extending the Union’s lead on the top of the MLS standings.
Prior to the match, the Union announced that one of their players had tested positive for COVID-19. With everyone else testing negative, the league decided the game should go on.
“We were aware of that this morning before flying, and we trust the league,” Wicky said. “They have a protocol they follow, and in every moment today, actually, we felt that we’re going to play. I never had any information that the game wouldn’t be on, so we flew over here and prepared our game normally.”
The Fire have three more regular season games to close out the season. Because the Minnesota United match had to be rescheduled to Nov. 4, the Fire have a game in hand on most of the rest of the league. But with several teams now hovering around the final playoff spots in the East, it won’t be easy. Up next, the Fire head to Tennessee to take on Nashville SC on Halloween night. Because of the red card, Calvo will have to miss that match.
The Fire remain the only team in MLS without a result on the road this season. With two of the final three away from Soldier Field, that will have to change if they want to secure a playoff spot. At the moment they sit in 11th, one spot out of the playoff picture, tied with Inter Miami and D.C. United on 21 points.
“We still have three games left and we need to get nine points from those three games or the maximum amount of points possible,” Giménez said, “We are still in control of our fate and we are going to keep fighting and keep going with everything that we have because that’s what we want.”
Chicago Fire FC: GK Shuttleworth, D Sekulić (F Collier 72’), D Bornstein (D Navarro 72’), D Calvo ©, D Pineda, M Medrán (D Terán 78’), M Mihailović, M Aliseda (M Herbers 72’), M Frankowski, M Giménez, F Berić
Subs not used: GK Sparrow, M Azira, M Casas Jr., D N. Slonina, D Reynolds II, M Gutiérrez
Philadelphia Union: GK Blake (GK Bendik 90’), D Elliott, D McKenzie, D Glesnes, D Wagner, D Gaddis (D Mbaizo HT), M Bedoya ©, M Fontana (M Ilsinho 60’), M Aaronson, F Santos (F Burke 60’), F Przybylko (F Wooten 87’)
Subs not used: M Turner, M De Vries, F Ngalina, D Collin