The Chicago Fire began their three-game midsummer homestand on the right note as they stunned seemingly unstoppable Nashville SC, earning a 1-0 win under the bright lights of Soldier Field. A season-high crowd of over 22,000 were in attendance for what will prove to be a memorable night on the Lakefront, as the Men in Red avenged a crushing loss against the same opposition earlier in the year and reignited hopes of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2017.
After teasing that he’d put out the strongest possible lineup in the midweek press conference, Frank Klopas did so. However, some were surprised when Mauricio Pineda was given the nod at right center back over Carlos Terán; Pineda has been very good this season when playing in the back line, but Terán has usually been preferred when available over the last year. Jonathan Dean came in for the suspended Arnaud Souquet, with Rafa Czichos and Miguel Ángel Navarro making up the left side of the defense. Fabian Herbers partnered Gastón Giménez in the middle, with the ideal trio of Brian Gutiérrez, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Maren Haile-Selassie in behind the striker. 19-year-old Georgios Koutsias got the nod up top, his first start as a lone center forward for the Fire.
Despite entering the match as the second-placed team in all of MLS, Nashville were without their two biggest stars from the opening whistle. Reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar went to the bench, presumably pre-rotation ahead of a busy week, whilst Walker Zimmerman was unavailable due to suspension. Without their star #10, who has twice recorded hat tricks against the Fire including once earlier this season, Nashville lacked a creative spark in the first half.
Nonetheless, the visitors had the first big chance of the game when Teal Bunbury slipped in behind the defense. Captain Czichos recovered well for the Fire, and made a huge defensive stop, ensuring that Chris Brady wasn’t tested in goal.
The Fire continued to grow in confidence as the half progressed, and chances began to present themselves as the creative forces in midfield stepped up. Though Shaqiri was relatively quiet in the first half, Gutiérrez and Haile-Selassie on opposite wings were successful at finding space left open by Nashville’s initial diamond in midfield.
It was Haile-Selassie who provided the assist for the breakthrough goal, but Herbers was the man who both started and finished the play. After taking control of an attempted Nashville clearance, Herbers calmly played the ball out wide the Swiss winger, who drilled the ball back into the box for Herbers to smash into the net. The perfect one-two punch was all that separated the teams at the break, though Nashville did have a goal called back just before halftime.
Gary Smith turned to his bench at the interval, bringing in the talisman, Mukhtar. His presence was immediately felt, as the visiting team were increasingly dangerous going forward. In the 56th minute, Mukhtar had a big opportunity with a free kick from just outside the box, which was very well taken. Brady was equal to it, and made a world-class save to keep the ball out of the net and preserve the Fire’s lead. On the other end, Gutiérrez thought he had scored his first Fire goal at Soldier Field following an excellent combination with Shaqiri, but it was called back due to a handball in the buildup from the 20-year-old.
In the 72nd minute, Nashville’s second half pressure continued, and they came mighty close with a triple chance. Mukhtar’s initial shot rattled the woodwork beyond the outstreched arms of Brady, Navarro made an incredible sliding block to thwart the follow-up, before the additional attempt from Luke Haakenson trickled wide. The Soldier Field crowd shared a collective sigh, as yet another big chance went begging for the high-flying opposition.
The closing stages of the match were nervy moments for the Fire faithful, but the strong supporter presence pushed the players to fight to close out the win. Pineda nearly tore the roof off when a rocket from distance rattled the crossbar as the Fire looked to find an insurance goal, showing a grit that was missing earlier in the year.
Herbers’ first half missile proved to be just enough as the Fire held on to the one-goal win. An excellent performance from front to back ensured that it was a well deserved victory, and though the team hasn’t been perfect under Klopas since he took over in May, tonight’s win was emblematic of the passion he has reinstilled in this group.
Now, with two more big games at home this week, there’s not much time to celebrate, and attention now shifts to Wednesday night’s clash with CF Montréal.