Welcome back to Hot Time’s look back at the 2021 season. Part 1 can be found here.
At the end of June, the Chicago Fire unveiled their new crest that’s going to replace the previous new crest just two years after its unveiling and almost immediate negative reaction both locally and nationally. The Crown crest, as it came to be known, was doomed from the start. From a failure to properly represent the city to street gang connotations, the crown logo was destined to fail and represented one of the darkest periods in club history.
The new logo, however, was much better received. It incorporated much of the things that was missed the first time around, the red C, the Florian Cross, and the Chicago Star; while also bringing in the Chicago color scheme as well as making it look cleaner and more modern. The new crest coming, however, didn’t improve results as much as it improved fanbase morale and a tough July would signal the practical end of the Fire’s competitive chances in the 2021 season. A brutal 5-1 loss to Nashville and a 2-1 loss to TFC that they should have won ruined an start to the month that included a 3-0 win against Atlanta and a 3-1 win vs Orlando City, where it looked like their tactical switch to 3 central defenders was starting to pay fruit. Instead, they hit a wall just as their manager was hit by some devastating personal news.
It was announced just before the game against Nashville that head coach Raphael Wicky was on his way to Switzerland to tend to a family health emergency that was affecting, as we would later learn, his dad. The way the Fire handled the situation should be commended. They prioritized the health and wellbeing of one of their staff in a situation that is familiar to all of us. There’s no way Wicky’s head would be 100% in the game, and the club did right by him by letting him fly to Europe to be with his family.
Stepping back from the game to game problems, the biggest macro problem with the Fire was their inability to string together results in the second half of the season, and August was the perfect illustration. They started the month with a 2W-2D-0L with wins over the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew and tough draws against Philidelphia and NYCFC to put them back into playoff contention, but in the latter half of the month, they lost two crucial games against Inter Miami and Orlando City that would have had them over the playoff line going into September.
The chief reason for the quality play that started the month was due to two reasons. First, the change in goalkeeper, and second, a change in defensive philosophy. 17-year-old Gabriel Slonina was inserted into the lineup after an injury to starting goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. In the six games of August, he only let in multiple goals once, and that was in the crazy 3-2 game against Miami that had more fluke goals in it than we’ve seen in a single game for a long time. He was remarkably poised for a teenager and was ready to step up and be a successful professional footballer.
The changing of philosophy was all about limiting mistakes. They stuck a third center back in alongside Mauricio Pineda and Calvo to temper Calvo’s wandering and poor passing decisions with an extra body to clean it up. Pineda was moved into athe sweeper role, and that really helped him use his good vision to sniff out and stop attacks, and the other CB role was eventually taken by Carlos Terán, who with the increased playing time, went from just an okay option to one of the better center backs in the league. Down the stretch, when finding reasons to watch games was getting tougher and tougher, the development of those two were some rays of hope as the season fell to darkness.
September and October were inevitable. While there were one or two good results, such as the 4-3 buzzer-beater against Cincinnati or the 1-0 win against still in the playoffs at the time of this writing Real Salt Lake, they lost every important match going in to the final stretch, including going almost winless in September, eventually costing Raphael Wicky his job. His last game was a 2-0 win against NYCFC. It was fitting that the team played the best stretch of last third of the season when they had nothing to play for.
Before we end, it should be noted that the second half of the season was full of scandal, including not just the Raphael Wicky situation. Gastón Giménez and Ignacio Aliseda ended up breaking a team rule and we’re suspended for a game. If that weren’t enough, some irresponsible reporting by ESPN’s Taylor Twellman predicted mutiny in the final match after the Fire let some players know that their contracts would not be renewed for the next season in order to give their representatives a jumpstart on finding them new homes for the 2022 season.
The 2021 Chicago Fire season was exhausting, both physically and emotionally. There were signs of hope, as there usually are. But overall, it was a depressing slog of two-game weeks and mistake-filled soccer. Luckily, Next year, MLS is limiting Wednesday/Saturday games and is looking to stretch out the schedule so it shouldn’t be as cluttered. This season was, however, better than last year, and with promising young players and a thriving academy, things are a little brighter. Lets hope that in 2022 that upward trend continues.