It’s a cliché to say a given soccer match is ‘a game of two halves.’ Saturday night’s season opener at Soldier Field between Chicago Fire FC and the New England Revolution was more ‘a game of the first two sixths’ as the opening 30 minutes contained all four goals and showcased Chicago’s strengths and weaknesses.
The Fire lived up to their name from the get-go, as the offense came out hot and produced a two-goal lead in the opening 11 minutes. Last season’s club top-scorer Robert Beric opened his 2021 account just five minutes in, tapping home a Boris Sekulic cross after he was played perfectly into space by fellow countryman Luka Stojanovic.
It was the latter Serbian who doubled the Fire lead six minutes later, finishing off a great team move that saw new signing Chinonso Offor set up a Przemyslaw Frankowski cross that Beric cushioned into Stojanovic’s path.
“I think it was a beautiful attack for us,” Stojanovic said of the Fire’s opening goal. “Robert scored a simple goal, but everybody worked to score that goal and I think it was a great action from everybody.”
However, it was familiar defensive difficulties that quickly proved the Fire’s undoing. Adam Buksa scored on a free header from a corner in the 14th minute, followed by a Gustavo Bou 27th minute equalizer resulting from Tajon Buchanan out-running Jonathan Bornstein.
“I’m frustrated, we’re all frustrated and not happy with the way we give the goals away,” said Fire head coach Raphael Wicky. “As a team on the field in these moments, players need to step up, players need to do better and take responsibility. It’s just too easy.”
Defensive lapses were a common theme last season, and the need to cut out those mistakes is just as clear to the players on the field as it is to Wicky on the sidelines. The goals both originated as throw-ins and as Fire captain Francisco Calvo put it “came from nothing.” He echoed Wicky’s call for responsibility, saying the players are well aware that it’s on them to avoid future lapses.
The game did have a sprinkling of late drama. The final five minutes featured a near-miss from Beric, New England striking the crossbar, and DeJuan Jones being sent off for denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity as punishment for a foul on Frankowski. The Fire were initially awarded a penalty, before VAR confirmed that the contact was initiated outside the penalty area.
The game finished level, which reflected a competitive game that both teams will leave ruing missed chances.
Speaking of things that were missed in this game, homegrown defender Mauricio Pineda didn’t feature after starting every game in 2020. He was joined on the sidelines by several players at various stages of injury recovery, and Wicky hopes as time progresses that a fitter squad produces increased competition and improved performances.
“I chose to go with players who were here in preseason and were here for all of preseason with us, there is no other reason for it,” Wicky said, adding that he thinks the squad will be more competitive than last season. “Mauricio’s a good player, an important player, and I believe he will get his minutes again this year.”
Of course, beyond the goals and the tactical decisions the most important facet of this game was one that’s been missing for a long time: fans. A crowd of 8,102 cheering on the Fire at Soldier Field for the first time since the club’s return to the lakefront, and their impact is what will be most remembered about the club’s return to action.
All three of Wicky, Calvo and Stojanovic were asked what it meant to have their supporters back, and the coach put it best:
“That was beautiful. I was waiting a long time for that.”
Bobby Shuttleworth had little to do, and made a couple good saves when called upon. Boris Sekulic looked faster than I remember, and was consistently supporting the attack. Johan Kappelhof looked largely comfortable in his return to the team. Francisco Calvo had his usual quota of over-aggressive passes that resulted in opposition chances. Jonathan Bornstein made a huge tackle to deny Buksa in the second half, but often looked stretched by the New England wingers and fullbacks. Gaston Gimenez had a couple speculative long-range efforts and was playing as more of a true #6 than we often saw last year. Alvaro Medran showed his on-ball talent as usual, but couldn’t find many game-breaking passes. Przemyslaw Frankowski often tucked inside, and never quite found the space he usually likes to run into. Luka Stojanovic had a phenomenal start and has both an nose for goal and eye for a pass. Chinonso Offor was a pleasant surprise, displaying good hold-up play and combining well with the rest of the attack. Robert Beric did what he does and was always around the goal, but interestingly often drifted wide in build-up.
Nacho Aliseda had a limited impact as a sub, while Miguel Navarro looked every bit like a defender playing on offense in his limited opportunities.