We’re back with Part 2 of our look back at the 2020 Fire season. You can find Part 1 here.
The world shut down for six weeks. There were no sports or gatherings or vacation holidays. Graduations were done digitally and all we had to entertain ourselves were the internet and books (and board games if you were lucky to be quarantine with someone else.) The MLS season restart was pushed back until May 10th, and then in April, it was moved once again to June 18th. Then on May 1st, MLS allowed teams to host individual players at their training facilities.
One month later on June 10th, the league formally announced the terms of their return. The MLS is Back Tournament would be played inside a quarantined clean zone inside Disney World. Games would be played on two temporary fields inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. The format would be one we’re all familiar with. It was essentially a World Cup format— a group stage followed by a knockout round. Finally, after years of waiting, the Fire could win the damn thing with Bastian Schweinsteiger’s retirement. However, they wouldn’t go into the tournament without some problems that needed to be solved.
The Men in Red would enter the tournament short-staffed because of injuries, and with new pieces that needed to find their place. Both Micheal Azira and Johan Kappelhof would miss the entire tournament with injuries, and there were questions about how the new blood would meld into the squad. We’d soon find out, however, as the Fire’s debut in the tournament was fast approaching. The only question was who they would play.
The Fire were initially drawn into group A; the 6 team group- alongside NYCFC, Orlando, Miami, Nashville, and Philadelphia. However, both Nashville and FC Dallas had to pull out of the event due to covid outbreaks within their respective teams, so the Fire were moved into group B to replace Dallas alongside Seattle, San Jose, and the Vancouver Whitecaps. And so on July 14th, the Fire were set to make their tournament debut against a team they already played this season: The Seattle Sounders. However, in order to both play 3 games a day and avoid the treacherous Florida summer heat and humidity, one of the games each day was played at 9 AM local time This game was one of them.
Raphael Wicky started Fire debutants Boris Sekulic and Gaston Gimenez, who made a cameo against the Revs back in March, along with Mauricio Pineda at center back in an experimental 3-5-2 with CJ Sapong and Robert Beric up top, and you know what? It worked! The change of formation stumped the midfield of Seattle, and the Fire with the extra players in midfield were able to take everything the Sounders attack threw at them. Despite having the ball less than 40 percent of the time, the Fire outshot Seattle 10-7, and had 4 more shots on target. The Fire’s goals came from Robert Beric who outfoxed Arriaga and had a brilliant backheel cut we all kind of forgot about but is worth a watch, and Mauricio Pineda’s far-post run off of a corner kick.
Everyone was feeling good after that. A win against the defending champions after making the proper adjustments to find the weaknesses in an opponent left things looking up for the club— plus the new players looked good on debut. Left-back Miguel Navarro came on in the second half for his first appearance and looked solid in relief for Bornstein. Pineda scored a goal. And Gaston Gimenez looked good in his full debut as well. The Fire were trending upward.
However, up next was a big roadblock in the form of the San Jose Earthquakes. The season previous, the Fire were the victims of not only a 4-1 beatdown in the Bay Area that saw Chris Wondolowski break the MLS all-time scoring record. Adding to that, the Quakes almost exclusively man mark on defense. Much like an NBA team, each player on San Jose has a specific defensive assignment assigned and they stick to players like glue. This makes it difficult to find any sort of rhythm when an opposing team has the ball, letting the Quakes control the majority of possession and not have to run around for 90 minutes getting exhausted defending. And that’s exactly what happened to the Fire. They never found a steady pace the entire match and San Jose controlled everything about the game. Add to that the 2 goals scored by Cristian Espinoza and (of course) Wondo, and the Fire was put out rather quickly. On top of everything else, Luka Stojanović, Chicago’s brand new attacking midfielder and premium signing, tore a muscle and would be out for the rest of the year.
All was not lost, though. Wicky’s men only needed a draw against the Lowly Vancouver Whitecaps to advance to the knockout stage. The ‘Caps were coming off of a 3-0 beating at the hands of Seattle, and they gave up 4 to the Earthquakes in their opener. Surely with the Fire’s attack coming together they’d be able to put the ball in the back of the net. As it turned out, despite having 60 percent possession and outshooting Vancouver 27 to 4, the Chicago Fire didn’t score a single goal and allowed two goals to lose the game.
Just two minutes in, the Fire had a corner chance cleared off the line and from there, they peppered the Whitecaps net with chance after chance after chance, and none of them went in. Meanwhile, Vancouver pounced on an errant pass in midfield, sliced open the Fire center backs, and calmly walked it around Kenneth Kronholm and into the back of the net to take the lead. We wouldn’t know it until later, but that would become the pattern for the season. The Fire would fail to finish chances, and the opposition would not fail to punish them for it.
And with that, the Fire were eliminated from Orlando. The Tournament started full of promise with the win over the champs but petered out to nothing in the end. Even so, there were some positives to take away. By the end, the Fire’s central midfield duo of Gimenez and Medran was proving themselves to one of the top combos in the league, and they proved they could create chances. All that was left was to figure out how they could convert.
Next week in the last part of the Retro, we go over the craziness that was August, September, and October, when MLS squeezed 18 games into 3 months.