And so it begins.
The Chicago Fire opened their 2023 season tonight with a closely fought contest against New York City FC at Soldier Field, savoring a 1-1 draw in the second thanks to an unlikely hero, but the Men in Red were left weakened by a handful of key injuries.
Entering the match, there was optimism that highly-rated homegrown prospect Chris Brady would get his second career MLS start in goal. However, when the lineup card was made public, Brady was nowhere to be found; he was kept out by an upper leg injury. Instead, 30-year-old Spencer Richey was included in the XI. Gastón Giménez, who was coming off of a long injury layoff, was deemed fit enough to play a limited role, but he did not start.
The Fire had a relatively bright start to the first half. Within two minutes, Chris Mueller already found himself inside the opposing penalty box, though he went to ground and could not draw a foul. The encouraging opening period was short-lived, though, as it only took 13 minutes before Federico Navarro was forced off with an injury. Navarro had been one of the Fire’s most consistent top performers since his arrival in mid-2021, and his departure from the field would prove to be a huge blow.
Chicago’s best chance of the first half came when Kacper Przybyłko, who was given the nod up front after a disappointing 2022, was gifted an opportunity in the final third. The Polish striker beat two defenders on the dribble, but the chance was ultimately wasted, with the shot being scuffed over the bar.
New York City had their share of opportunities too, though. A cross from Matías Pellegrini found Andres Jasson, who hit the post, and Keaton Parks drew an excellent save from Spencer Richey on the follow up. In the 39th minute, Miguel Navarro struggled to contain NYCFC right winger Gabriel Pereira, who curled the ball past Richey at the far post. It did require a VAR check, as there appeared to be a handball in the buildup, but it was not deemed to be a clear and obvious error.
Things went front bad to worse for the Fire a few moments later when Jairo Torres, who had a promising half in central midfield following a frustrating 2022, pulled up with an injury. With Fede Navarro already injured, Sergio Oregel unavailable due to illness, and Gastón Giménez not fit to play more than 30 minutes, Fabian Herbers was called upon to play as a makeshift central midfielder. While Herbers’ introduction was anything but sexy, it would prove to be a blessing in disguise.
With only one substitution window left, Ezra Hendrickson decided to introduce MLS veteran Kei Kamara at the half as a replacement for Przybyłko. It made the Fire Kamara’s tenth MLS club, a league record. Two more changes came shortly after the hour mark; Swiss winger Maren Haile-Selassie made his debut in place of the injured Chris Mueller, while Gastón Giménez replaced Brian Gutiérrez, moving Herbers to the right wing.
It only took one moment of inspiration for the momentum to shift. In the 73rd minute, not long after entering the game, Giménez caught a ball cleanly from quite some distance. It went just wide, and the score remained 1-0, but it provided a spark that motivated the Fire to keep pushing for an equalizer. Three minutes later, it came.
Xherdan Shaqiri, who had had a quiet evening up until that point, started the move, whipping a free kick toward Kei Kamara at the back post. Kamara’s header was cleared by Maxime Chanot, but only as far as Fabian Herbers, who caught a look at goal. The German substitute ripped a shot goalbound, which took a heavy deflection off of Talles Magno and would up in the back of the net. Herbers, who was not expected to play a prominent role this season, proved to be a truly unlikely hero, and had a strong second half which proved that he can be a meaningful player in 2023.
As the game winded down, the Fire were the better team. They never lost that momentum and continued pushing for a winner. Haile-Selassie put the ball into the net for what appeared to be a debut goal, but the offside flag went up. Then, in the 101st minute, Shaqiri had an opportunity from a free-kick which would prove to be the last act of the game. Despite a long build-up, the DP hit the ball straight into the wall, and the final whistle blew moments later.
Given the momentum swings, a draw was probably a fair result. If the injuries to Navarro, Torres, and Mueller turn out to be serious, though, it could be a Pyrrhic one for the Fire. Ezra Hendrickson will be unhappy that his team could not pose a consistent attacking threat for the first 70 minutes of play and that they could not further capitalize on late momentum. There were certainly many promising signs and reasons to be optimistic for Fire fans as the club embarks on its 26th season, but it’s clear that there is work to do if they are to find any success come the end of the year.
The Chicago Fire will take on the Philadelphia Union on the road next Saturday at 6:30 PM CT.