With a performance that could only be described as “Jekyll and Hyde,” the Chicago Fire lost 3-2 to the Columbus Crew, keeping them bottom of the Eastern Conference. In the first half, the Fire put in their best 45 minutes of the season and utterly played the Crew off the park. Goals from Rafa Czichos and Chris Mueller gave the hosts a two-goal advantage. However, following a series of adjustments by Crew manager Caleb Porter, the visitors stormed back into the game, with new $10.5 million signing Cucho Hernández scoring a late winner.
Starting Lineup (left to right): Slonina; M. Navarro, Czichos, Terán, Espinoza; Giménez, F. Navarro; Gutiérrez (Torres 63’), Shaqiri (Herbers 80’), Mueller; Durán (Pryzbyłko 76’)
Gaga Slonina (5.5) — Slonina put in his first less-than-ideal performance since the international break. He only made one save, and it was a fairly routine one. While none of the goals were howlers on Gaga’s end, his position could have been better on Hernández’s game-winner, and ultimately he was chipped by the Colombian striker in the game’s decisive moment.
Miguel Ángel Navarro (4.5) — After a month-long layoff due to COVID, Navarro returned to the lineup and failed to make an impact. His defensive positioning and decision-making certainly helped open up the space for the Crew to score their second goal, and he was caught too high up the field at the instance which resulted in their third. Navarro capped off a difficult night with a straight red card at the death, adding insult to injury. He could miss up to two games, pending a decision by the MLS disciplinary committee.
Rafael Czichos (6.5) — On a positive note, Czichos did score his first MLS goal. Chris Mueller’s cross found the captain’s head, and it brushed into the net past a hopeless Eloy Room. However, he had a difficult second half and looked lost. The defense was a mess organizationally, and a lot of that will come down to Czichos. That problem is concerning, yes, but it is something that will improve with time.
Carlos Terán (5.5) — Terán did not have a standout performance, and he struggled to cope with the Crew’s second-half siege on the Fire penalty box. His passing has not improved, and only three-fifths of his passes found their target. Terán’s long balls playing out of the back also have been terrible; only one of nine were successful.
Jhon Espinoza (5) — Espinoza came into the lineup for Boris Sekulić, supposedly as a more attacking option in the right-back position as opposed to the defensive-minded Sekulić. He is certainly not an upgrade on the Slovakian, though. Espinoza’s offensive contributions were minimal, and his crossing was poor. When the Fire were 2-0 up, they opted to keep Espinoza in the game rather than replace him with Sekulić... a decision which did not pay off, as the Ecuadorian proved ineffective defensively in the final period of the game.
Gastón Giménez (6.5) — The central midfielder has been the Fire’s most consistent player this season, and he was one of the better performers on the day. Giménez was certainly the better of the two players in the midfielder double pivot, though his offensive contributions were not necessarily up to the required standard, especially in the second half.
Fede Navarro (5) — Playing as the holding midfielder, Navarro was practically anonymous, and that is a huge problem for the Fire. As the cover in the middle of the field, he is tasked with breaking up plays, and he could not do that. Navarro only had 38 touches through the entire 90 minutes, and ultimately only won 6/11 ground duels in the midfield. Offensively he did not provide too many forward passes and didn’t create any chances.
Brian Gutiérrez (8) — Guti was a bright spot for the Fire, and it is no coincidence that all three Crew goals were scored after he was substituted. The 19-year-old brought a lively spark to the attack, and even though he had limited time on the ball, he made the most of it. As Jairo Torres struggles to adapt to the pace of MLS, this starting spot is Guti’s to lose.
Xherdan Shaqiri (5) — When big-money, superstar Designated Players are brought into MLS clubs, they are supposed to set a gold standard for their teammates, both in their play and attitude. Xherdan Shaqiri has struggled to do that, in more ways than one, and it is starting to get frustrating. Certainly, his quality and talent are visible in flashes. But there is also a total lack of end-product and his offensive contribution has been truly minimal. In the 80th minute, with the scores level at 2-2, in the Fire’s most important game of the season, their $8.5 million DP asked to be substituted. It was a perfect representation of the Fire’s — and Shaqiri’s — season.
Chris Mueller (8.5) — Especially in the first half, Chris Mueller was the Fire’s best player on the field. After some good moments in the last few games, he put it all together today, first notching an assist on Rafa Czicho’s goal, and then scoring his own right before halftime. Mueller has shown a lot of that quality that was visible in Orlando in years past; he is one of the best one-on-one attackers in MLS, and he is an incredibly valuable asset for the Fire team. It is Mueller — not the DP Shaqiri or the captain Czichos — who seems to be emerging as one of the leaders of this team.
Jhon Durán (8) — On Saturday night at Soldier Field, Jhon Durán proved that he is the future of the number nine position for the Chicago Fire. He was a significant upgrade on Przybyłko. The Colombian’s movement was much better and opened up a lot more space in the final third. He is a much more dynamic and energetic player than Przybyłko and capped off a good performance with an assist for Chris Mueller at the end of the first half. Durán absolutely did enough to earn another start, and if he can find a more consistent rhythm, he will make that starting position his own going forward.
Jairo Torres (5.5) — Torres was totally ineffective coming off the bench as a 63rd-minute substitute for Brian Gutiérrez and made little impact where he was supposed to be the super-sub. The Mexican has struggled to adapt to the pace and physicality of MLS, as he discussed after the match, suggesting that it may still be some time before we see the best of Torres. It’s hard to find too many positives to take from his performance, but one can only hope he finds his best form and earns a spot in the XI.
Kacper Przybyłko (5) — Przybyłko was finally dropped to the bench after a series of poor performances. Unfortunately for him, his replacement took his chance and looked impressive, while Przybyłko failed to make an impact in the 19 minutes he got off the bench. The Pole only had 5 touches.
Fabian Herbers (5.5) — The game didn’t suit Herbers at all when he came on in the 80th minute. If he was going to play at all, it should have been when the Fire were winning, to add a defensive presence to the attacking four. Instead, he came in at a moment that made no sense, and for that reason, he made little impact.
Ezra Hendrickson (3) — This was a big game for Ezra, and a big test. He had the opportunity to prove himself against Caleb Porter, the coach whom he sat alongside in the Crew dugout last season. Simply put, Ezra was outcoached, and he has to take the primary blame for the result. The Fire were excellent in the first half, but when Columbus changed their shape from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 in the second half, the game was turned on its head and Hendrickson had no answer. At this point, the gameplan is so predictable that Ezra’s substitutions can be guessed right down to the minute. What the Fire need more than anything else is some tactical flexibility and the ability to adjust in-game; that will make this team so much better, and allow them to actually close out games.