You would be forgiven if you happened to stop paying attention to the 2020 Chicago Fire after the MLS is Back tournament and assumed they had made the playoffs whenever the season returned. Despite the disappointment of the result against Vancouver, there were clear signs of quality in the team. Álvaro Medrán and Gastón Giménez had already started building a rapport with each other and the left-back platoon of Miguel Navarro and Jonathan Bornstein was proving to be solid. They also proved they were capable of creating a metric ton of quality scoring chances. It was up to Robert Beric and company to put them into the back of the net.
The Restart came in the closing days of August. MLS would deliver three six-game chunks to be played over the next two months and change. If eighteen games in three months sound like a lot, that’s because it is. The Fire ( and the rest of the league) had a matchday about every four days. There would be a lot of mileage put on players and teams in a very short amount of time. Which is why the first six games when everyone was relatively refreshed would be so important.
The Fire then proceeded to fall on their face. Their re-debut against the Columbus Crew went about as well as you receiving a kick in the face. They lost 3-0 and were dominated for large swaths of the match. The Crew going into the season were Eastern Conference favorites and the pandemic interruption did not slow them down. Both of their main threats Gyasi Zardes and Darlington Nagbe scored goals, and the Fire had to go back to the drawing board.
Fortunately, they had the consensus worst team in the league FC Cincinnati coming to their long-awaited return to Soldier Field, and would be able to see some of their adjustments come to fruition. The big one would be slipping Fabian Herbers into the traditional #10 spot and turn him into something of a shadow striker who helps in the middle of the park on defense. It worked. The Fire blitzed through Cinci, and inside three minutes, the Fire scored with the aforementioned Herbers getting the honors of being the first Fire player to score in Soldier Field since Cory Gibbs scored in a friendly against Manchester United in 2011. Goals two and three were scored by Medran and Aliseda— and the Fire were back to making positive moves. That, sadly, was not to last. The rest of the first third of the season was as close to catastrophic as it could get. They lost to NYCFC and the Revs in a return match at Soldier Field, and they drew at Columbus after going up 2-0 within the first 15 minutes. They ended the first block of games with a 1W-2D-3L record and playing some really poor football.
The dropping of points against New England and Columbus would be the start of a continuing trend with the club for the rest of the year. The Fire left thirteen points on the table, the most in the league, and they were ahead in a fair number of those games. Again and again, the defensive blunders would cost the Fire a promising season. The center-back pairing of Francisco Calvo and Mauricio Pineda would at times play really well, but then switch off at completely the wrong moment to let goals in and either blow a lead or stop a promising comeback in its tracks. The Fire’s set-piece defending was also a cause for concern. They used a hybrid zonal/man-marking system that no one ever seemed to understand. Opposing attackers would routinely find the holes in the zones and go unmarked to reach corners and the lack of players guarding the side of the posts would result in unnecessary goals against.
The second third of the season was much better, even though it started with the Fire hitting rock bottom. They lost 4-1 to Orlando City FC, but it wasn’t just the result that made this the low point to the Fire’s season. In the 35th minute, Orlando City gave up a penalty and an argument ensued between Medrán and Beric. It was embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. The team was imploding, down 2-0, and to add to the misery, Medrán missed the penalty. Later on in the match, the Fire were screwed out of goals by the VAR multiple times.
They did, however, bounce back the next week, and with a vengeance. They beat the bejesus out of the Houston Dynamo 4-0 and then went on the next week to win against a flailing Atlanta United. Altogether, including a tight loss at SKC, a draw with Montreal and a W against DC United, they finished the second split with a record of 3W-1D-2L and on the uptrend. Two clean sheets and 11 goals scored had the fanbase feeling a little better, but we all knew the Fire were balanced in a precarious position.
As we all know now, the Fire were incapable of getting the job done. They failed to win a game in the last split, drawing four of their last six games- blowing leads against the Red Bulls and Minnesota ( a game that was postponed due to a COVID outbreak in the Loons locker room) and not being able to complete comebacks against Nashville and SKC after giving up the lead cheaply. The real heartbreaker of a game was against the eventual Supporters Shield winners Philadelphia Union. The Fire dominated the best team in the east for 25 minutes until a goal against the run of play by Kacper Przybylko put the Union up a goal to the good. Eight minutes later, things got worse when Calvo got sent off. But the Fire— despite everything going wrong—still fought, and Robert Beric scored his 10th goal of the season; finishing a brilliant hustle play by Djordje Mihailovic. Being down a player finally caught up to them when Philly scored again. The last game of the season was a wild 4-3 affair that left the Fire on the outside of the playoffs by a point and .04 points per game, ending with a bang… and disappointment.
There are three things the Fire must be commended on, though. The first is their relative lack of COVID problems. The club had only one positive test all season— right after the first Columbus game, and zero positive tests between staff and players since. Compared to some teams in the league, that almost spotless record spoke to how serious they took the pandemic, and how disciplined the team was.
The second was how well the media department handled the lack of fans in Soldier Field. The opens to the broadcasts on ESPN+ and WGN 9 (This was also good) highlighting different areas of the club and making us at home feel a part of it.
The third and arguably most important was their treatment of CJ Sapong and what he was going through. He and his partner had a complicated birth of their new child, and because of the quarantine procedures, Sapong ended up missing a lot of the season either self-isolating after travel or with his partner and new child. That the Fire thought of CJ the person and dad first over CJ Sapong the soccer player is exactly what I want from my soccer club, and I was happy humanity won.
The 2020 Fire season will be remembered as a year of near misses and almosts. The Fire were so close to being really good. For long stretches of games, you would have thought that they were an elite team, but mental and physical mistakes combined with the lack of depth needed to compete in such a compressed schedule hurt them. In the end, you can’t help walk away from the season feeling down, despite all the good things.