There’s not much good that can be said about the Chicago Fire’s first road game in the 2021 season. A 3-1 loss to a struggling Atlanta United that didn’t even have their star at 100 percent is not the right look for a team that was hoping to legitimize their impressive early performances in the opener. Let’s take a look at the game.
Both teams spent a lot of the early going in the game bypassing the midfield. In the 9th minute, the Chicago Fire saw their first chance, with Boris Sekulic playing on Przemyslaw Frankowski into the box; but that shot slammed off the far post and remained out. Atlanta United would make the Fire pay for not finishing the chance as Ezequiel Barco hit a second chance ball from a free-kick in the 23rd minute. Despite being completely off-balance, Barco hit a laser-beam that no human being could stop. Less than 10 minutes later, Robert Beric tried his own off-balance shot, but the Fire would see another shot clang off the post and out.
After that first goal, Atlanta United seemed to take over. However, some hope came flooding in for the Chicago Fire in the 47th minute as Sekulic found a way to sneak a lucky pass through the Atlanta defense to find Luka Stojanovic, who couldn’t help but take a shot. The newly found deadlock would be broken in the 66th minute when Marcelino Moreno put in a fairly weak cross. Unfortunately, Fire goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth couldn’t get a proper handle on the ball, punching it down towards defender Johan Kappelhof. After bouncing off Kappelhof, the ball took a spin and ended up rolling into the back of the net.
Choosing not to surrender completely after this humiliating display, Robert Beric somehow found empty space in the opposing box only a minute later, but his shot would go nowhere. Beric would get another big chance in the 83rd minute when a bouncing ball pulled Brad Guzan way too far off his line, but the overhead chip would only bounce off the post. The final nail in the coffin was a goal from Emerson Hyndman, who finally converted on cleaning up a rebound after a shot from Jake Mulraney was blocked. Mulraney only was able to get the shot off due to the defense seemingly ignoring him as he had the ball in the box. The score would be made final at 3-1 for Atlanta.
Here are three things we learned from this absolute disappointment.
Why not Pineda?
There has been one key absence from this Chicago Fire squad that everyone’s been talking about. Where is Mauricio Pineda? Many were rightly confused as to his absence from the Starting XI in the home opener, especially with the performance from the defense, and head coach Raphael Wicky answered the question by explaining that Pineda had been away from the club all throughout the preseason. The reason he was away? Pineda had been called up to the U23 US Men’s National Team, consistently starting for the squad.
This whole situation reeks similarly of the 2016 season when goalkeeper Sean Johnson was called up to the USMNT for the first time in years during preseason. Then-coach Veljko Paunovic chose to start backup Matt Lampson for most of the season due to his performances in preseason, later trading Johnson to Atlanta (who traded him to New York City FC).
Pineda played almost every minute of the 2020 season and was lauded as one of the team’s best and most consistent players in the defense. Deciding to sit him for missing preseason due to being recognized for that impressive play is damaging to the team, especially when they are already struggling at his position. He should’ve been starting already, he should’ve had at least a single appearance off the bench already, but the bottom line is that he needs to start next week.
Make Your Own Luck
“Luck” as a concept is one of the toughest things to consider in analysis of really anything. It’s probability. As someone who’s played a couple of ‘gotya’ games, I understand what it feels like to win some and lose a lot. All due to math. So when I see the Chicago Fire hit the post three times in one match, all three being major chances that could’ve changed the direction of the match if they went in, I understand that there’s not much you can do to change that random number generator tucked into the fabric of the universe. On the other hand, there’s something that can be done to combat “bad luck.”
There’s an old saying about how you don’t need luck when you can “make your own luck.” Now, this is usually used in reference to cheating, but when it comes to sports I see it differently. If you are struggling at shooting, you take more shots. If you have just a two percent success rate, that means in 100 tries you should be succeeding at least twice. That’s what “making your own luck” means in sports and it’s what the Fire needs to do going forward. If they truly believe that they are getting unlucky in a game, that means they need to simply work even harder to create more chances. If those “unlucky” chances were all they could muster in this game, then clearly the attack wasn’t preforming well enough.
Head coach Raphael Wicky came into the season with a Chicago Fire squad that he said he was comfortable with. He had no plans to add any new players in the preseason window. He’s also stuck by his Starting XI through all 180 minutes of these first to games so far, only making a total of three substitutions that have a combined 44 minutes of playing time from their appearances. Only four of those minutes came from this game, with new fullback Jhon Espinoza getting a run-out in the 86th minute. When pressed about the lack of substitutions, Wicky basically said that he had no trust in his bench.
A lack of trust in depth is understandable when you look at the bench at the current moment. Right now, the Fire are in the middle of a small injury crisis in the attack. Stanislav Ivanov is out with a long-term injury, Elliot Collier and Fabian Herbers were both injured during the preseason, and Ignacio Aliseda was apparently not fit enough to make the bench in this game. The only attacking option was 18 year-old homegrown Alex Monis. But at the same time, something needs to be done in the middle of a game where someone needs to do something.
Attack isn’t even the biggest problem the Fire have, as the second goal shows once again that they need a clear starting quality goalkeeper and the third goal shows that they need better defenders. A lot of these players may have potential in the future, but right now this team is not good enough. The Chicago Fire want to build their team like a small-town club on a shoe-string budget, but they are a club in one of the biggest, most well-known cities in the world and are owned by one of the wealthiest men in the world. If there is an issue with depth, if there is an issue with not having quality starters, then the Fire need to go out and fix it in the summer window. If they cannot trust their youth as depth, then why are they putting themselves in a situation where their only depth is youth?