The Chicago Fire spoiled FC Cincinnati’s playoff party with a chaotic 3-2 win in front of a record crowd at TQL Stadium, and a pair of starlets born in 2003 – Jhon Durán and Brian Gutiérrez – led the charge.
The Fire entered the match with nothing to play for, having been already eliminated from the playoffs two weeks prior with a loss to Charlotte FC. Despite the low-stakes environment, head coach Ezra Hendrickson opted to roll out what he perceived as the best lineup to win the game. There were only a few wrinkles in that; Stanislav Ivanov made a surprising start to the eleven, coming in on the wing as Xherdan Shaqiri was not a part of the squad. In addition, backup goalkeeper Spencer Richey started in goal, making his first MLS appearance for the Fire against his former employer.
From the opening whistle, it was all FC Cincinnati. The hosts produced far more chances in the early stages and looked like the team that had only lost once since May. The strike partnership of Brandon Vázquez and Brenner – which has thus far produced 32 goals in MLS – found themselves in good positions throughout the half. In the 30th minute, Vázquez was denied by Richey, and Luciano Acosta squandered the follow-up as he skied his shot over the empty net. The game entered the half inexplicably goalless.
But the Fire came out of the break all guns blazing. Jhon Durán and Brian Gutiérrez both came close to scoring off of crosses within the opening minutes of the half, and though neither could find the back of the net, it could foreshadow what was to come later on. The visitors kept the momentum going as the second half progressed, and things started to click in the final third.
The breakthrough would come in the 56th minute. Brian Gutiérrez sent an inch-perfect through ball forwards from the midfield, and Jhon Durán got on the end of it. The 18-year-old, fresh off of his first two caps for the Colombian national team, got on the end of it and slotted the ball into the back of the net to open the scoring. That was far from the end of the action, though.
It only took three minutes for the second goal to arrive. Brian Gutiérrez again found himself at the center of things, this time finding the back of the net himself. Chris Mueller did excellently to find him with a pass just outside the box, and the homegrown midfielder just had to slide the ball past Celentano in a one-on-one situation. It was Guti’s third goal in the space of 10 days, having scored twice this week for the U.S. U-20 National Team down in Mexico.
Gutiérrez and Durán’s fun wasn’t over yet, though. In the 75th minute, Guti played a lobbed through ball to his Colombian teammate, and Durán audaciously dinked the goalkeeper from well outside the box. It was Durán’s 8th of the season and the fourth time this season that he had combined with Gutiérrez for a goal; the striker’s emergence in the second half of this season has been one of the bright spots in the Fire’s year. Gutiérrez’s continued growth and progression have also been a highlight as his top talent shines through more than ever before.
“They both have incredibly high ceilings,” Ezra Hendrickson told media after the final whistle. “Jhon is a player who, once he gets it all together, he can be a really really special player. Guti as well; between his vision and his ability on the ball... the ceiling is very very high.”
In the final minutes, Cincinnati did put up a fight. Lucho Acosta got one back in the 79th minute, with the Fire back line caught ball-watching. In the 89th minute, Brandon Vázquez notched his 17th goal of the season, making the Fire extremely uncomfortable. A chaotic ten-minute stoppage time period ensued, in which Sergio Santos was sent off for Cincy. Álvaro Barreal had a crack with what would be the final kick of the game, but it went just wide, and the referee blew the whistle at the 100th minute of play. Cincinnati would have secured a playoff berth with a win, but it will now come down to the final day against DC United.
With the win, the Fire secured their fourth victory on the road in 2022. While the playoffs are already out of the picture, there were many encouraging signs for 2023, headlined by the continued excellence of young stars like Jhon Durán and Brian Gutiérrez.
The Fire will close out the season next Sunday at 1:30 PM as they face the New England Revolution at SeatGeek Stadium.