The Chicago Fire went into Saturday night’s match against Atlanta United missing several key attacking players due to injury, and that lack of depth proved to be a big problem, especially late. In a match where the Five Stripes had more than 60 percent possession, the Fire held on but finally ran out of gas, losing 3-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We had our chances,” Fire coach Raphael Wicky said. “We know this is a tough opponent in a tough place to play. We knew if you want to come here, make a point or have a win, you gotta suffer, and not make the easy mistakes.”
Atlanta would open the scoring with a goal that certainly wasn’t off an easy mistake. In the 23rd minute, Ezequiel Barco hit what’s sure to be an MLS Goal of the Year candidate. After his free kick bounced straight back off Chicago’s wall, Barco took a second crack from 30 yards out, kissing the crossbar with an absolute screamer to the left upper 90, out of the reach of Fire goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. The Fire had chances to equalize including a wide open shot by Chinonso Offor that went straight at Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan, but the Five Stripes took that 1-0 lead into the half.
Luka Stojanović put the Fire back in the match shortly after halftime, slotting home a cross from Boris Sekulić to tie the match at one goal apiece. Stojanović broke out the same fist pump celebration he used on his week one goal against the Revolution, and the Fire appeared to have a fighting chance.
Atlanta would strike again the 66th minute. While the Five Stripes’ first goal was a spectacular effort where it would be hard to pinpoint blame, their second goal was squarely the fault of Chicago’s defense. Marcelino Moreno whipped a cross into Chicago’s six yard box. Shuttleworth dove out but couldn’t get it, and Johan Kappelhof, who was again starting in place of Mauricio Pineda, pulled out of the play to make room for Shuttleworth. No one dealt with it, the ball trickled into the Fire’s net, and Kappelhof was charged with the own goal.
“We need to put more pressure on the ball on the side, not let them cross,” Wicky said after the match. “In the middle, if Bobby comes out, Bobby needs to clear that ball... that’s obviously then, in that moment of the game, a tough one.”
For the final half hour, the Fire’s legs seemed to get heavy, but the team still had another chance to equalize when a chip by Robert Berić caught Guzan off his line, hitting the post in the 82nd minute. Three minutes later, Emerson Hyndman buried Atlanta’s third goal of the night, and it was game over for the Fire.
Ignacio Aliseda and Elliot Collier were listed as questionable for the match, but both were ruled out before game time. Miguel Navarro, an attack-minded left back who Wicky had used as a winger in preseason, was also unavailable. Fabian Herbers is still weeks away from coming back from a knee injury, and Stanislav Ivanov won’t be back for months.
That meant Wicky had one attacking option available on the bench, forward Alex Monis, but he opted to stick with his starting XI nearly the entire match, before finally brining on Jhon Espinoza for Chinonso Offor late.
“Alex Monis, right now, in this game, I didn’t think he was ready to step in and help us,” Wicky said after the match. “That’s the only thing. He’s 18 years old, he doesn’t have any games in this league. That’s the reason.”
The loss means the Fire fall to 0-1-1 on the season, and have still failed to win a true road match since October 2019’s 5-2 win over Orlando City.
“We’re trying to break that cycle,” defender Jonathan Bornstein said. “We talk about it, how we need to be better on the road, we gotta be stealing points on the road. Our mentality is good going into the game, we’re putting in a lot of work, but the results just aren’t falling our way.”
The Fire will have the chance to end that streak again next weekend when the team visits Harrison, NJ for a match against the New York Red Bulls (noon CT, WGN-TV and CFFC Live).
Chicago Fire FC: GK Shuttleworth, D Sekulić, D Kappelhof, D Calvo ©, D Bornstein, M Medrán, M Giménez, M Frankowski, M Stojanović, M Offor (Espinoza 87’), F Berić
Subs not used: GK G. Slonina, D Omsberg, D Terán, D Reynolds II, D/M Pineda, M Casas Jr., M Gutiérrez, M Monis
Atlanta United FC: GK Guzan ©, D Lennon (Gurr HT), D Robinson, D Walkes, D Bello, M Barco (M Ibarra 88’), M Sosa, M Hyndman, F Mulraney, F L. López (F Martínez 67’), F Moreno (M Damm 67’)
Subs not used: GK Lundgaard, D Franco, D Ambrose, F E. López, F Torres