Brian Gutiérrez looked out of it.
The general environment in the Chicago Fire locker room following their stunning 2-1 loss at home to the Columbus Crew was grim. They had just conceded a 90th minute goal from midfield, to be fair. Most of the players had already left for the night, and those that were still there seemed to linger around like emotionless ghosts.
Gutiérrez stuck around to talk to the media, and he was willing to answer any questions, but you could tell that he wasn’t feeling great. It wasn’t quite sadness or disappointment, just emptiness.
You couldn’t blame him. The homegrown had seen his side drop points at home once again, and he wasn’t even on the pitch when the late goal happened. He was hauled off a bit past the hour mark with Chicago down a goal.
It was a brutal moment that capped off a rough stretch for Gutiérrez on and off the field. He made a flying start to the season, but it’s all fallen apart since then. Fortunately for him and the club they’ll have a break thanks to the international window, and the brief time away should allow everyone to hit the reset button.
During this time, the Fire will have to learn how to treat Guti better.
Let’s go back to the early parts of the season.
Gutiérrez was blossoming into a star. Designated Player Xherdan Shaqiri was struggling with injury issues, which allowed the youngster to not only play, but play in the number 10 position. He made the most of the opportunity.
The attacker played so well. He brought a new dynamic and a new spark to the side, driving forward with the ball and then laying it off to teammates in dangerous positions. It was a joy to watch, and a Fire offense that had been quite stagnant was suddenly pretty exciting.
There was genuine worry that would all change once Shaqiri returned. Things got off to a rough start, to be fair, as there was one game where Gutiérrez was forced to play in a much deeper role to accommodate the bigger name. However, Chicago started using Guti alongside Shaqiri, and the pair began to cook.
The peak came in mid-May when the Fire had two games against new rivals St. Louis City SC. The attackers were both brilliant, and they linked up well over the course of the contests. That led to two important victories for the team, one in the U.S. Open Cup, and the other in MLS play.
Life was good.
Then things went south.
Before that, there was an important announcement made by the club. On May 3rd, then-head coach Ezra Hendrickson confirmed that Gutiérrez would not be released for the upcoming U-20 World Cup. It was a decision that sent a bit of a shockwave through social media. Fans of the United States were fuming that they’d be without a key player at the tournament, while Fire supporters stated that they simply needed him more.
No matter which side of the divide you were on, the call made sense at first. Guti was in superb form, and he had become a key part of the lineup. Chicago, meanwhile, were getting results with him.
However, the situation flipped on its head following the aforementioned matches against St. Louis. That is a key moment in this timeline, since the player would’ve then left for the competition if he had been allowed to go. That means that Gutiérrez wouldn’t have actually missed those games.
The future matches are what he would’ve been unavailable for. Let’s see how those contests went for him and his team.
Gutiérrez started in the same spot for the next two games, a 2-1 loss away to Charlotte FC and a 3-3 draw at home to Atlanta United, failing to register a goal contribution in that span. He wasn’t bad or anything, just not as effective.
He was key in the following contest, which was a US Open Cup round of 16 tie against Austin FC. The youngster assisted Chicago’s opening goal, hitting a corner right to the head of Rafael Czichos. That proved to be the winner, setting the stage for a massive quarterfinal.
However, Gutiérrez then found himself dropped to the bench for the Fire’s next two matches, which were both on the road. There was some rotation to the starting lineup in general, sure, but Shaqiri started each game.
He returned to the lineup against FC Cincinnati, but that was a really funky eleven. Was Guti still a starter at this stage? Things were becoming unclear.
The fanbase got their answer in the Open Cup quarterfinal versus the Houston Dynamo. Gutiérrez started alongside Shaqiri in a much more normal lineup, which was good. What wasn’t good was everything that happened next.
Chicago were swept aside by the opposition on their own turf, losing 4-1. The player was involved in one of the worst moments of the night, as he was clearly brought down by the goalkeeper in the penalty area, only for the referee to not point to the spot.
That was the last contest Gutiérrez would’ve missed. Let’s do the math now.
He was available for five MLS matches, where he started three, and his team only picked up three points while going winless. He was able to feature in the Open Cup victory against Austin, but he then had to endure the embarrassing defeat against Houston.
Seven games, one ultimately meaningless cup win, three points in the league, and a single assist.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but was it really worth keeping Gutiérrez around for this stretch when he could’ve been gaining invaluable experience and exposure on a worldwide stage?
That’s not even adding the mental effect that this ordeal might’ve had on the youngster. He knows he would’ve been a key part of that US team, but he had to stay back in Chicago.
It’s like when you were younger and your friends were all playing outside but you were forced to be home for whatever reason. He’s obviously been a professional when talking to the media, and he’s never complained once, but surely he was hurt at least a little.
This has all led to what we saw on Saturday night.
So how do the Fire fix this?
It starts with the system. Interim head coach Frank Klopas has adopted a 3-4-3 formation as of late, and it’s just not been working. Things are too congested in the middle, and there’s not much danger coming from the wings. If the team was better defensively then that could be forgiven, but they’re not.
As much as fans resented the 4-2-3-1 Chicago used under Hendrickson, that’s what the side should return to. It brings the most balance to the side, and it allows them to send numbers going forward.
That’s step one. Step two is playing Gutiérrez up the middle.
There’s already been plenty of discourse when it comes to him and Shaqiri and the number #10 position. We know how well both players can play there, and we know that they can play alongside each other. Shaq in the middle and Guti out wide does work, but the two still should swap.
Gutiérrez is at his best when he’s the main man, the star of the show. He’s better when he’s driving forward with the ball, either able to go left or right. When he’s out wide, his abilities are limited. Shaq’s current age and playstyle might suit a central position better, but he’d be absolutely fine on the wing.
That layout might already be better now, but the main reason for the switch would be in terms of the future. The Fire have to make Gutiérrez’s development a priority. This season might already be a wash in terms of results on the field, since they’re out of the Open Cup and they’ll have to battle just to make the playoffs.
2023 doesn’t really matter anymore, so the club knows they have time to build towards the future. Guti is already a talented figure, so imagine how good he’ll be when the focus shifts to him and his growth as a player. Who knows, maybe the results will improve right away as well. They can’t get much worse.
The next part is a little tricky. Interim boss Frank Klopas will have to balance the homegrown’s minutes while still having him be a focal part of the team. He’s only 19-years-old after all, and his body simply isn’t built to play too much yet. The fact that he’s got a slimmer frame doesn’t help things, either.
Chicago can’t burn out Gutiérrez. As mentioned at the start he already looks tired, but fortunately he’ll have a break ahead of him. He’ll have a clean slate when he returns, a fresh start. They have to make sure they manage his minutes to keep him fit over the course of the rest of the campaign.
Lastly, just buy a DP striker already. Kei Kamara is a good option to have, but he’s better off the bench, and his ceiling isn’t too high. If Guti can play behind a star name, it’d only make his life easier and make his development go that much smoother.
Two steps forward
Messing up Gutiérrez would only ruin the goodwill the club has built with recent youngsters.
In the past, the Fire were known for killing off promising careers before they got going, especially when it came to homegrowns. It started with Harrison Shipp, and things only got worse and worse from there. The situation was horrific under Veljko Paunović, as the likes of Drew Conner, Mo Adams, Joey Calistri, Daniel Johnson, and others were all wasted.
That led to players not wanting to ever sign for them, like Andrew Gutman and Cam Lindley. Chicago was becoming the place to avoid.
That changed when new ownership came in, though. Even though Przemysław Frankowski wasn’t an academy product, his purchase and then eventual sale was a big step in the right direction.
Then came Jhon Durán and Gabriel Slonina, who were leaps in the right direction. Durán was bought when he was only 17-years-old, but after a season at the club he was shipped off to the Premier League for around $20 million. Slonina was a homegrown, and his development was just as fast as he made the move to European giants Chelsea.
The way the Fire took care of those players restored their image in the public eye. This was a club that could be trusted with potential again.
Gutiérrez’s ceiling might be just as high as those mentioned earlier, but that won’t matter if his talents are wasted. Then the club would be right back where they were in the first place.
A final plea
Chicago can’t get this one wrong.
Too many fans have already fallen in love with Gutiérrez, and want to see the best for him, whether that’s here in the present or abroad in the future. Supporters also want to see the team itself succeed, and that’s only going to happen if they start maximizing the youngster.
Don’t fail him, lads.