Welcome to part 1 of the fourth annual Chicago Fire Retrospective. Where we take a look at the season that just happened, and more often than not, try to figure out what went wrong.
To say that we had high hopes for the 2021 Chicago Fire would kind of be a lie. After last season’s effort that had them finishing just outside the playoff positions in a truncated season due to COVID-19 (and as we’d find out later probably would have been a playoff team if Inter Miami had not fudged the books and broken the MLS roster rules) you would have expected the Fire to bring in and bolster the squad in a way that screamed intent. Instead, they signed just four players, of which only three were eligible to compete in the 2021 campaign. Their fourth signing, Jhon Durán, was 17 and therefore due to FIFA regulations, could not leave his home country to pursue a professional career for another year.
The three players brought in, Nigerian center forward Chinonso Offor, Bulgarian winger Stanislav Ivanov, and Ecuadorian defender Jhon Espinoza were all relatively young players with little top flight soccer experience, and whatever production they would get out of them would be gravy. They were brought in with an eye to the future. However, Georg Heitz and co failed to think of the present. Despite their position in the table, the 2020 season was filled with defensive errors and lack of clinical finishing that was waived under the rug by Robert Beric finishing 2nd in the golden boot race. Although, looking back, with all the quality chances the Fire were creating, he should have won the award instead. There was trepidation going into camp that the Fire top brass didn’t recognize their problems and therefore, didn’t take steps to fix them.
The Fire’s preseason overall, though, assuaged those fears a bit. They only dropped one game, to FC Cincinnati, and looked pretty okay otherwise. Academy signing Brian Gutierrez was one of the standout performers alongside Mauricio Pineda, now in his second season with the club. Álvaro Medrán and Ignacio Aliseda, the Fire’s two best creative outlets, alongside Przemysław Frankowski looked to have the Fire’s build up game back at the same level as last year, or even better. All the Fire had to do was hope that another year in the system would help the defense coalesce into a unit capable of supporting goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth and that Robert Beric would defy his career trends and continue to be productive in front of goal.
The opening twelve minutes of the Chicago Fire’s season would seem to prove that our worries of the front office’s inaction were misplaced and everything was going to go the Fire’s way. Robert Beric would score within the first 5 minutes from a cross put in by Boris Sekulic, but the real magic of the play would come from a 1-2 in midfield from Chinonso Offor and a returned-ahead-of-schedule Luka Stojanovic, who would go on to score the second goal just six minutes later.
Of all the subplots of the 2021 season, Luka’s is probably the most uplifting… and tragic. After signing on for 2020, he would be unable to join the team for training camp due to the onset of the pandemic. He played just 30 minutes of football during the MLS is Back tournament before tearing a knee ligament and requiring surgery. Six months later, he’s setting up a goal and scoring the second against the team that would go on to not only win the supporters shield, but shatter the previous total points record. Luka would then go on to have a prolific season, being in the joint lead of goal scorers as well as becoming a fan favorite for his charitable contributions; especially in Section 8 Chicago’s annual season long Fire for Food drive for the Greater Chicago Food Depository (there’s still time left to donate) which earned him the nickname “Chef Luka.” However his option would be declined at the end of the season and it looks like barring a miracle, he won’t be back for 2022.
And much like Luka’s season, all the good things in the opener would quickly deteriorate to bad. The dynamic duo of Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa almost immediately made the game level off of, of course, lapses in defensive concentration. The First was a goal from a corner given up after they fell asleep on a throw. And the second directly after falling asleep off of a throw. The defensive errors were back, and they were here to stay.
The Fire’s April and May were more of the same. Some good play was undermined often and they didn’t score points again after their opening day draw until over a month later in a 1-0 win over Inter Miami on a goal scored by the aforementioned Luka Stojanovic. In the four games in between the draw and the win, the Fire only scored 3 goals and gave up 8, losing four games in a row to Atlanta, the Red Bulls, the Union, and DC United. There were moments in games where they did look to be the better side, but the familiar refrain of not putting away chances and defensive errors would set the tone for the rest of the season. At the end of May, the Fire had a record of 1-1-5, and only had four points to their name.
June was a strange month in terms of schedule, but not in results. It started with a two week break for the Nations League final and the group stage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where we thought the Fire would have time to make the mental and tactical adjustments to turn things around. However, the Fire continued to have problems scoring, getting shut out of their first two games against Montreal and Columbus coming back from the break.
The next game, though, would be cause for hope. The Fire and Philadelphia Union played a thrilling 3-3 draw that saw the Fire go up 1-0 after two minutes with an own goal, then give away the lead, only to make a come back to take a 3-2 lead before an own goal by Boris Sekulic returned the game to the status quo. The lowly Fire were better than the playoff-bound Union, and their new 5-3-2 tactical formation would, for a time, have the Fire playing their best soccer of the season. But like all things in 2021, the brief positivity would be followed by the inevitable collapse.
Next week, a new manager, a new crest, and the club is saved by The Zoomers.