Saturday was tough to watch. We knew the Fire were fighting an uphill battle against the best team in the East and arguably the best team in the league. But I expected a bit of a fight from the men in red (never navy). Instead, what we saw was complete domination— even if the stats don’t read like it. Here’s what we learned from the Fire’s 2-0 defeat to the Philadelphia Union
This Team Stinks.
The sad part about all of this is that this was entirely predictable. Raphael Wicky and Georg Heitz fell in love with the “almost and just about” that caused the Fire to win only 5 games last season, and stood pat this past winter. In fact, this all starts with giving center back and captain Francisco Calvo a contract extension before last season’s pandemic-stricken season was over. That signaled to the fanbase that the Fire brain trust believes that last season’s 5 wins were more of an effect of the pandemic disrupting any sort of gelling that comes when a brand new roster is put together.
As it turned out, this was largely a mistake. It turns out that the 2021 Chicago Fire is largely the same as its 2020 counterpart, with a few exceptions here and there. On defense, their questionable bet on Calvo has, with an acknowledgment of the relatively small sample size, has turned out to be a bust. The aforementioned captain is exactly the same player who was run out of Minnesota in the middle of 2019; an extremely talented and skilled player who doesn’t have enough focus or maturity for his skill to matter. The club, though, still trots him out there game after game with the armband on as if to justify the contract extension.
Meanwhile, Calvo’s partners are either Johan Kappelhof, who hasn’t really played much since the beginning of 2019 before being bitten by the injury bug, Mauricio Pineda, the Fire’s second-year prospect who’s had to adapt to being a center back after playing his entire junior career as a box to box midfielder (remember, Pineda was supposed to be Mo Adams’ replacement), or Wyatt Omsberg, who’s a ridiculously hard worker but may not have the natural talent needed to be a regular starter at an MLS level.
Offensively, Robert Beric is turning out to be exactly who I thought he was. A decent striker, but not someone you can rely on to score enough to be in contention to win a championship. He missed a few sitters against Philadelphia, and while the quiet performance against Atlanta wasn’t really his fault, he doesn’t command the attention of someone the way Barco or Martinez did. He does not make demands of the opposing defense.
All of this is to say that the Fire FO made some major miscalculations on personnel coming into the season. Calvo’s ability as a player is less than the sum of his parts, Beric probably isn’t worthy of what we expect out of a designated player, and they stayed pat on a roster that in hindsight, needed major improvements coming out of last year. The good news is that they have a whole summer transfer window to fix it. They just have to commit themselves to doing it.
But It’s Not All Bad
If we’re going to pound the FO for all the bad decisions they made in the offseason, we should praise them for the things they got right. And it starts by understanding why they fell in love with last year’s roster in the first place. The signings of both Boris Sekulic and Luka Stojanovic were absolute slam dunks. We never really got to see Luka last year, as he wasn’t able to join the team until the MLS is Back tournament and once he did, he suffered a season-ending injury. It turns out that if he was healthy in 2020, the Fire probably sneak into the playoffs. Luka has been the reason why the Fire offense has worked so well when they have gotten their offense to work. He’s was outperforming his xG number going into the game against Philadelphia, and while he was pretty quiet against the Union when the Fire did manage to go on the attack, it was largely through him.
Boris Sekulic, meanwhile, has been the best and most consistent player on the roster. The defensive breakdowns we see happening time and again never happen on his side of the pitch and when pushing forward, he gets into effective spots, creating space for the attacking players around him and delivering dangerous crosses. The most encouraging thing about his play is that he’s doing all this while still trying to find the balance between attack and defense. Once he figures that out, expect to see more spectacular performances out of the Fire’s right side.