I watched the Chicago Fire’s loss to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday on my phone, in the middle of a packed schedule of youth soccer games. I was coaching my younger son and cheering on my older son at our club’s annual Spring Classic tournament. In the middle of all the fun and joy that is youth soccer, I was subjected to the flat, joyless Fire failing to score—and even failing to run hard, at times—against the then-winless Red Bulls.
Football misery, in the middle of happiness.
The irony is that joy is one of the things Raphael Wicky has stressed to the players since arriving at the beginning of last season. Listen to any of his pregame speeches posted online by the club. He always tells the players to go out and enjoy themselves. It’s something I tell my kids, too. We should be thankful we get to play this game. Our performance should reflect that. The harder we work, the more fun we’ll have.
Right now, it doesn’t seem like that message is resonating with many of the Fire’s regular starters. Yes, there are injuries. But this flat-out isn’t working. Something has to change. The question is what?
Wicky was able to squeeze Mauricio Pineda into the 4-2-3-1 by playing him at the No. 6, shifting Alvaro Medran out wide. A lot of people wanted to see Pineda play defensive midfield, including me, but Medran isn’t a wide player. Wicky even said so a few weeks ago. I appreciate wanting his best players on the field all at once, but if it didn’t work against the Red Bulls, it’s not likely to work at all. Wicky needs to find a formation that puts his best players in a position to succeed. Right now teams are able to mark Robert Beric out of the game, and there’s a disastrous lack of cover provided by the midfield out of possession. The back four take a lot of heat for the eventual mistakes that lead to goals, but they’re inevitable if the midfield doesn’t drop and defend, too.
I don’t claim to know what the solution is here. I just know what they’re doing, over and over, isn’t working. It’s the old “definition of insanity.”
Long term? The Fire need a lot of help. Georg Heitz’s off-season push for “continuity” has not worked. Winning MLS teams generally need three successful Designated Players, and right now, the Fire don’t have one. Ignacio Aliseda had a poor 2020, and has been hurt thus far this season. Gaston Gimenez was strong during parts of last season, but looked like he didn’t want to (or perhaps couldn’t) run like a center mid should against New York. Beric has been hot and cold. His goals carried the team last fall, but has only one goal through three games this year. Is that good enough for a DP?
Luka Stojanovic has been great this season, as has Boris Sekulic. Chinonso Offor has looked solid at times. Is there anyone else you can argue has been better than expected?
Another issue: other than Bobby Shuttleworth, the Fire don’t really have anyone who’s won in Major League Soccer. Johan Kappelhof was part of one successful season. Jonathan Bornstein is a winner, but most of that happened outside of MLS. This team should have signed or traded for a proven MLS winner in the off-season, and there were a few available. There is something to be said for MLS experience. Bruce Arena has proven that at every stop he’s made.
Also, remember the whole “we’re basically an expansion team” argument from last season? Nashville and Inter Miami are both better than the Fire for a second straight season, and Austin FC has two straight road wins to start 2021 (which must be pleasing to the Minister of Culture). This proves the bar needs to be higher for the Fire.
Wicky will be under more pressure to keep his job with anything less than a win over the Philadelphia Union. To be clear, I have no inside knowledge that Wicky might be fired at this point. But I do think it’s fair to ask whether Wicky has lost the locker room.
I really like Wicky as a person, and I think there’s no doubt he’s a smart football mind. The guy played a decade in the Bundesliga as a defensive mid, and started a World Cup for a very good Switzerland side. He knows more about the sport than I ever will. He’s been dealt a lot of bad luck to start the season, too. But, it’s a sad fact that it’s easier to change the coach than to change all the players.
Should he be fired? It depends. Does the team look uninspired again against Philly? Does the club already have a successful replacement lined up? Whatever happens, there’s no way this season’s struggles are all on Wicky, or even any one player. But the loss to New York goes way beyond tactics, or even quality of players. It was far worse. It looked like some of the guys just didn’t care, or weren’t physically prepared to play hard for 90 minutes. To go back to the beginning of this column, they were joyless.
If this is going to be a successful club—and I still think it will be, long term—flat, lifeless losses need to be unacceptable. The expectations need to be higher.
There must be consequences.