There was one play in the Chicago Fire’s brutal 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati that perfectly summed up the match—and, for that matter—the season.
On Álvaro Barreal’s 50th minute free kick, Bobby Shuttleworth—who had been stellar all night—made a spectacular dive, slamming his ribs into the goal support bar, trying to keep the ball out of the net. He failed, but he managed to get a finger on it. He was down in pain for a couple minutes after that as he tried to catch his breath.
Shuttleworth did everything he could to help his team win. His 11 saves were both a career high and a Fire club record. Even on the one time he was beaten, he sacrificed his body for his team.
Now let’s back up a few seconds.
The Fire had four players set up in a wall in front of Barreal. On the free kick, three of them jumped. But the fourth guy, on the far left of the wall, flinched. The ball sailed right over his head. Had he jumped with his teammates, the goal would have been blocked. Instead, Cincinnati scored, and eventually took all three points.
So who was the guy who didn’t jump? Robert Berić. The Fire’s $2.7 million-per-year designated player.
As Shuttleworth—who is making around $125,000—laid in the goal in pain, Berić walked away with his head down.
If Berić was delivering at the other end of the field, you could perhaps let this slide. Instead, he’s on an eight game goal drought. During one sequence in the second half, he blocked a Luka Stojanović shot, then a minute or two later, failed to get a shot off from one yard out after a perfect ball from Brian Gutierrez. After his good run of form last fall, his play has become extremely predictable, and opposing defenses have been able to mark him out of matches.
This is the problem with the 2021 Chicago Fire. Good MLS teams maximize their three designated players. Look at New England, sitting on top of the table, with Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou, and Adam Buksa all playing at a high level for Bruce Arena.
Besides the $2.7 million the Fire are paying Berić, they’re giving another $2.3 million to Gastón Giménez, who is away on international duty at the moment, but has otherwise been poor this season. The team’s third DP, Ignacio Aliseda, is making $821,500. Aliseda shows promise, but is he actually good enough for a DP slot? Mid-roster guys like Shuttleworth and Fabian Herbers are consistently outworking and outperforming their much higher paid teammates.
Toward the end of the match, a section of fans started chanting “Wicky Out,” which is a perfectly reasonable response to this mess. After all, it’s easier to fire the coach than the entire team. I think Raphael Wicky certainly shares some of the blame, and maybe a new coach could get more out of these guys, but he’s not the biggest problem. Georg Heitz built this roster, and is responsible for all three DPs. He has to shoulder more of the blame than Wicky.
But, ultimately, the players have to accept their share of the blame, especially those players who aren’t giving everything to win.
Here’s what Shuttleworth told reporters after the match:
“First I want to answer and say 100 percent I think Rapha is a great manager. He puts us in positions to succeed and we go over the stuff in training. We train this stuff, we’re told in meetings. As players we have to take responsibility sometimes for not stepping up and doing what the manager asks us to do. So 100 percent I can speak for the team and myself that we are behind Rapha.
“As far as snipping at each other and that kind of stuff, I think when you’re in a season like this, a little bit of holding each other accountable and grinding at each other and all that kind of stuff is a good thing. I think if we were all sitting in there laughing and joking right now, we shouldn’t be professional players and we shouldn’t be here.
So I would say the frustration levels are high, of course. We’re 1-7. If there are happy guys in the locker room, they shouldn’t be here. They are in the wrong place.”
There may not be any happy players at the moment, but there are certainly some who appear to be disinterested, or at the very least, are lost in their own heads.
Wicky echoed that with his final statement to reporters Wednesday night. “It’s all up here now,” Wicky said, pointing to his head, before walking out of the press room.
One of Wicky’s best qualities as a person might actually be hurting him right now as a coach. He sees his players as people first, and wants to help them find their way back to success.
“Right now my job and the job of my staff is to lift them up, to give them confidence and show that we believe in them,” Wicky said. “Right now when they are on the bottom and on the ground, they are feeling bad. We don’t need to (punish) them. That’s part of my job.”
That may work for a struggling player needing to find his form. But when you don’t jump with your teammates in a wall? That should require a different response.
The guys who are still out there working their asses off deserve better than this.