At one point this season, you might have been encouraged to come out to Soldier Field to support the Chicago Fire, who were unbeaten and in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Fast forward about 90 days and it’s a very different picture.
The Fire entered Saturday night’s home match against D.C. United last in Major League Soccer with just 11 points from 14 matches and winless since March 19. No team had scored fewer goals than the Fire’s 13 entering the weekend.
And designated players Xherdan Shaqiri (hamstring), currently the league’s highest-paid player, and Jairo Torres (hip) missed the match because of injuries, putting even more stress on a team that has rebuilt twice in the last three seasons under sporting director Georg Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer.
But the Fire might have alleviated some of those burdens with a 1-0 victory thanks to Fabian Herbers’ headed goal in the 78th minute.
“Luckily I got the goal at the end, so I’m happy to help the team,” Herbers said. “It’s a huge push for us in the right direction hopefully, and hopefully we can continue to build on it and keep going.”
Herbers’ goal helped the Fire snap a 10-game winless streak.
“Hopefully we can change the narrative about this team that this is a team that can’t close out games,” coach Ezra Hendrickson said. “We showed tonight that we have what it takes.”
But even with the victory, the math still might be against the Fire (3-7-5, 14 points) if they want to play postseason soccer.
Excluding the pandemic-altered 2020 season, the final playoff spot in the East the last four seasons went to teams that finished with 48 points (2021), 45 points (2019) and 50 points (2018 and 2017).
That means the Fire, who finished third with 55 points in 2017, need to have Supporters’ Shield-like form — typically about two points per game — over their final 19 matches to even have a shot at qualifying for the playoffs.
“What I said to (the players) after the game is remember this feeling,” Hendrickson said. “Remember how good this feels to walk off a pitch when you’ve played well knowing that you didn’t give the game away or you didn’t lose the game. … Consistency is something we need to work on.”
The Fire approached the recent international break as an opportunity break out of their recent funk.
“We got a chance to analyze what we had been doing up to this point,” defender Jonathan Bornstein said. “Got a good amount of time to put in the work and watch videos, just really prepare for this next game. A lot of it was that we spoke about where we were at in the season, being realistic and reevaluating everything prior to this game.”
Hendrickson warned the Fire would experience “growing pains” this season and touched on the need for patience Wednesday during his weekly news conference.
“It’s not so much patience because guys are young, but it’s patience because it’s a relatively new team,” Hendrickson said Wednesday. “It’s going to take a while to get guys to mesh and jell with each other, and now you have also a new coach with a new philosophy that they have to also grasp.
“So … when I talk about patience, it’s not so much about age or anything like that, it’s about giving time to develop. And we’re seeing the progress. We’re definitely seeing the progress. If we were sitting here and we were losing every game 3-0, 4-0, 5-0, we would have an issue.”
To Hendrickson’s point, the Fire probably aren’t as bad as their record.
But even after Saturday’s result they have 0.93 points per game, a rate that isn’t dissimilar to 2015-16, when the Fire finished last in MLS with 30 points (0.88 PPG) and 31 points (0.91 PPG).
That’s not to say the Fire will end this season with their third Wooden Spoon, a fan-created “honor” awarded to the team that finishes at the bottom of MLS. But the margins are thin and the Fire need to build on Saturday’s victory.
They might have to do so for some time without Shaqiri, who leads the Fire with six assists and entered Saturday the team’s joint-top scorer with three goals. Torres has been dealing with his injury off-and-on since joining from Atlas FC in May.
The severity of Shaqiri’s injury was not announced, but Hendrickson said the Fire hope the midfielder is fit for their next match against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday.
“Hamstrings are very tricky, so we’ve got to be careful with that,” Hendrickson said.
The Fire goalkeeper and Addison native has been the subject of several transfer inquiries, with English Premier League club Chelsea and European and Spanish La Liga champions Real Madrid interested in the 18-year-old.
Any deal for Slonina likely would include a loan back to the Fire for at least the rest of the season.
Hendrickson declined to comment on the speculation Wednesday but said he’s not worried about Slonina losing focus in the meantime.
“It’s really good that he’s kept his head and stayed focused because that could be really distracting,” Hendrickson said. “This is something we really can’t discuss and just let the guys do the negotiations … handle that stuff and we just want to focus, me and my staff on the games coming up.”