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The 2022 Chicago Fire Retrospective Part 1

Part 1 of our look back at the 2022 Fire season

MLS: Chicago Fire at Inter Miami CF Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to part 1 of the fourth annual Chicago Fire Retrospective. Where we take a look at the season that just happened, and more often than not, try to figure out what went wrong.

It was a tough year for the Chicago Fire, both on and off the field. A coaching departure amid a tepid end to the 2021 season meant that immense pressure was on president Sebastian Pelzer and general manager Georg Heitz to get the winter transfer correct and supply the team with not just a good complete roster on paper, but

Heitz and Pelzer got to work interviewing coaches and eventually settling on Columbus Crew assistant Ezra Hendrickson at the end of November. The move was celebrated by both the Chicago and wider soccer communities, as the consensus was that it was about time for the former long-time MLS defender and assistant coach to get a head job. And he had one hell of a job to do to bring the Fire back to respectability after the brain trust’s first choice Raphael Wicky headed back to Switzerland.

Ezra’s coaching staff would consist of Frank Klopas and goalkeeper coach Aiden Brown from the previous staff, alongside new face Junior Gonzalaz and returning club legend CJ Brown.

Their next move was quite possibly their best. They signed Rafael Czichos, a center-back from FC Köln, to be the captain of the defense. He wound up being captain of the whole team and was a key in taking the Fire from one of the worst defensive units in the league to a respectable to good defense. He helped bring along both Wyatt Omsberg and Carlos Teran at different points in the season— turning them into better players than they were at the start of the year.

They also brought in a new striker. Kacper Przybylko was brought in from the Philidelphia Union to become the new primary threat. A proven MLS goalscorer, Przybylko was to add experience in a winning locker room to a very young team alongside his historical scoring rate within MLS, something the team hasn’t had for years.

However, the signing everyone was excited about was their new Designated Player. Coming straight off of a goal in his final League 1 appearance, Xherdan Shaqiri joined the team in Texas during the 3rd phase of the preseason. Shaq was to be the new central midfield talisman; the player the offense ran through and the difference maker.

Their last bit of international transfer business happened two weeks before the season started, but wouldn’t immediately affect things. Mexican prospect Jairo Torres was brought in with the club’s young DP spot to fix some of the midfield problems the club had shown in the preseason, His flexibility would help create some dynamism on the wings, something the club desperately needed.

This changed what a good start to the season would look like for the Fire. Essentially, they just needed to hang around until Torres could come and reinforce things. They needed to hope that their narrow one dimensional soccer could do enough to keep them in the playoff race.

The season opened in Ft. Lauderdale against Inter Miami, and for the most part, things looked bright. The opening day lineup was a 4-2-3-1, the formation they’d stick to for 95% of the season. Gaga Slonina started in goal with a back four of Miguel Navarro, Czihos, Wyatt Omsberg, and Boris Sekulic. Gaston Gimenez and Mauricio Pineda manned the double pivot while Fabian Herbers and Stanislav Ivanov started on the wings, Przybylko started up top and Shaqiri was in the 10 role.

The football was good despite the lack of width. The defense was night and day from last year, and the Fire had the better of the scoring chances, Ivanov hit the post twice and Gimenez just missed a shot from long range. A scoreless clean sheet was not a terrible way to start the season, and it was certainly different from last year where they probably would have found a way to lose that game.

Another nice change from last season was that they kept up the spectacular defense for the first month of the season. Through the end of March, the Fire were undefeated in their first five games, including two wins. Their first W of the year came in a 2-0 win in the Washington DC snow. Stanislav Ivanov scored the Fire’s first goal of the season after beating Bill Hamid to a deflected Shaqiri cross. The second was scored by Jonathan Bornstein, who found himself all alone in the box and the ball flicked on by Gimenez. They’d then win back-to-back games, beating Sporting Kansas City despite finally giving up their first goal of the season.

They finally lost after 7 games with a 1-0 defeat against Orlando City, and that’s when the wheels started to fall off. Including a 5-4 penalty loss shoot out to Union Omaha, the Fire went winless in their next 9 games. The Month of May was especially poor. a 4-1 loss to Atlanta United was bookended by a 3-2 loss to Toronto where the Fire was up 2-0 at halftime. It was a horrid way to go into the 3 week international break.

Within all of that, something was brewing that would help the team in the next month, and it wasn’t Jairo Torres. Torres had come in fit as a fiddle after the Liga MX Apatura, but he almost immediately caught the injury bug. Instead, the wing help would come from a local source.

Chris Mueller had a hard 6 months in Scotland— on the roster at Hibbs and struggling for playing time. The Chicago Sockers youth product joined the club just in time for their 4-1 loss to the Five Stripes. however, he was the lone bright spot in the game. His dynamic movement and ability on the ball were evident right from his first minutes in a Fire shirt. His play would come to define the Fire’s second half of the season and whenever the Fire played well, he was often the cause.

The first half of the season was an exhausting one. The Fire started so brightly. They did the things they needed to do to become a top team if they could have kept it up through the reinforcements getting here. But the play of the Fire’s designated players, especially Shaqiri, fell off a cliff. They also had problems scoring goals consistently. Through April, the Fire only scored six times, and five of them came in just two games.

But on a positive note, the defense was as good as the offense was bad. Gaga, Czichos and the company kept 5 clean sheets through March and April and kept the Fire within playoff striking distance. If they could keep that going into the second half and find some offense, they could make a second-half surge.

Coming up Next: Things get a little better and a lot worse. Plus, Gaga goes to England,