Soccer is a cruel game.
The Chicago Fire drew FC Cincinnati tonight, and for the second week in a row, they had their hearts broken in the final moments. Despite carrying a 3-1 lead deep into the second half, they saw it evaporate as the guests scored twice in the last 6 minutes of regulation.
Despite a tough defeat at Philadelphia a week prior, the Fire camp was in good spirits throughout the week, and head coach Ezra Hendrickson went for a strong lineup against Cincinnati. He returned to his preferred 4-2-3-1, with Brian Gutiérrez slotting in as the #10 for the injured Xherdan Shaqiri. Maren Haile-Selassie got his first start on the right wing, while Kacper Przybyłko kept the starting job up top.
Though the Fire had a strong opening sequence, it was the visitors who got on the scoresheet first. Venezuelan international Júnior Moreno took a shot from inside the penalty box, which deflected off of his countryman Miguel Navarro and flew past a hopeless Chris Brady. Cincinnati, who entered the match unbeaten through their first three matches, seemed to be cruising to yet another victory in the Windy City, a place they have been successful over the years.
However, the momentum shifted around the half-hour mark. 19-year-old Brian Gutiérrez, inexplicably an unused substitute in the defeat to the Union last week, picked out Przybyłko, whose gorgeous bending effort from the edge of the box left Naperville-native goalkeeper Roman Celentano with no chance. It’s been a tough 18 months for Przybyłko, who has failed to make any sort of positive impression since his arrival in Chicago, but this goal could prove to be a turning point for his Fire career.
With Guti continually pulling the strings in the middle of the park playing as a #10, things started to click in the attack. Haile-Selassie looked continually dangerous in the attack, and Chris Mueller looked lively in his first start back after a minor injury sustained from the home opener two weeks ago. The Fire’s #8 had some quick movement in the 18-yard box and won a penalty when he was fouled by Yerson Mosquera. Captain Rafa Czichos converted the penalty down the middle as Celentano dove to his left and could only watch as the ball rolled past his outstretched legs.
Things felt good as the Fire entered the halftime break with a lead for the first time all season, and it would soon get better. Mere seconds into the second period, Mueller got on the end of a cross from Arnaud Souquet and smashed the ball into the back of the net to make it 3-1. The Fire were flying, and for a while, Cincy had no answer.
The second half progressed slowly through the bitter cold, and the Fire grew comfortable in their two-goal lead. But they say a two-goal lead is the most dangerous in sports.
Chris Brady made numerous big saves to keep the score where it was, but Cincinnati maintained their pressure. After adding the third goal, the Fire’s attacks were few and far between, and the guests always seemed more likely to score. As the clock wound down, their efforts were rewarded.
Right when the Fire seemed to finally be in a good place and moving towards their first win of the season, it all fell apart. Sergio Santos scored in the 84th minute to reduce to deficit to one, and in the 87th minute, Júnior Moreno found the back of the net with a shot that hit both posts before going in. The Fire had to settle for a point.
Ezra Hendrickson was far from pleased after the final whistle, expressing his displeasure in the post-match press conference.
“You’re up two, they have a corner kick, that ball is getting cleared,” he told the media after the final whistle. “I’m fighting for everything. I’m not getting pushed around. They’re not going to score. It’s simple. When we get in these positions, we have to fight. The mentality has to be better. It’s all about competing, it’s all about fighting for the badge.”
Tonight marks the third time that the Men in Red have blown a two-goal lead under Hendrickson, falling to both Columbus and Charlotte last season after being up in a similar fashion. This team just can’t seem to hold onto a lead, and it’s hard to see them being able to make any sort of a playoff push when they play like this toward the end of games. Hopefully, once the injury list is shortened and a squad closer to full strength is available, the coach will be able to look to his bench and find reinforcements who can help preserve those leads, and win points for Chicago. Once again, it was a game with many positives for the Fire, but the final narrative was shaped by an inability to close out the game at their best.
The Chicago Fire will return to action next Saturday at 6:30 PM CT as they face Inter Miami on the road.