The Chicago Fire are often difficult to describe. Tonight, it is not difficult. It is impossible.
This week, they had the opportunity to play on national television on a Sunday afternoon and took on Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While Atlanta is a place that the Fire have never won in MLS play, they put in a big shift but ultimately came up short in a 2-1 loss.
Entering the match, the Fire knew that they were in for a difficult task. Ezra Hendrickson raised eyebrows with his team selection, though, and opted to start homegrown attacking midfielder Brian Gutiérrez in the double pivot next to Fabian Herbers, while Xherdan Shaqiri returned to the lineup as the #10. Jonathan Dean returned at left back, replacing Miguel Ángel Navarro, and the rest of the lineup was unchanged from last week’s draw with Philadelphia
Atlanta entered the match third place in the Eastern Conference and named Argentine World Cup winner Thiago Almada in their starting lineup upon his return from injury. Their new Greek center forward, Georgios Giakoumakis, also came into the eleven despite a questionable status entering the game, and from the opening whistle, it was clear who the better team was.
14 minutes in, both of the two attacking stars got involved. Almada dropped deep in midfield to receive the ball, and played an inch-perfect pass over the top in the direction of streaking right back Brooks Lennon. Lennon drilled the ball across to Giakoumakis, and Rafa Czichos failed to cut off the pass allowing the Greek forward put the ball into the back of the net.
While the starpower of the home team made an instant impact on the game, the supposed superstar of the Fire failed to do so. Shaqiri, the second-highest-paid player in the league, had not started a game since the Fire’s second outing of the season against Philadelphia, but he is trusted enough that once he returned to fitness, he immediately came back into the lineup as the #10. Shaqiri’s passing was somewhat sloppy, and while he clearly has quality in his locker, he was outshone by Gutiérrez, even though the homegrown was playing in a much deeper and more unnatural position.
Shaqiri was substituted early in the second half after a difficult outing, and Gutiérrez returned to the attacking role underneath Kei Kamara. Herbers also came out after another frustrating performance in defensive midfield, while Gastón Giménez and Fede Navarro both entered in the double pivot. Giménez and Navarro both provided huge upgrades in the middle, and the return of Navarro from injury, in particular, could prove to be a big difference-maker for this team.
That quality off the bench changed everything. In the last 20 minutes of the match, the Fire were by far the better team, and they were constantly knocking on the door with Gutiérrez pulling the strings in the middle. Giménez was excellent, as was Navarro, and Georgios Koutsias looked lively. As Atlanta entered into their shell to defend their 1-0 lead, Hendrickson introduced Kacper Przybyłko in an attempt to open up space in the final third and find an equalizer.
In the 90th minute, Przybyłko received a gift. The ball fell to him, via an Atlanta player, in wide open space, bearing down on a goal one-on-one with Clémont Diop. Somehow, he didn’t score, and his attempt was blocked, but some wizardry from Gutiérrez gave Przybyłko another chance. He tapped the ball into the empty net, and the Fire equalized. Gutiérrez added yet another assist, and showed once again why he should be the starting #10 and focal point of the Fire’s attack.
Somehow, after all that, it wasn’t meant to be. Atlanta kept pushing for a winner, and keeper Chris Brady made a world-class save to preserve the tied score. However, in the ninth minute of stoppage time, disaster struck. A corner kick flicked back across the box by Juan José Purata bounced off the backside of Maren Haile-Selassie and directly into the back of the net. Atlanta won 2-1.
“When you get in pressure situations like this, think of an egg and a potato,” Ezra Hendrickson told the media after the final whistle. “In the same boiling water, the egg becomes harder and the potato becomes softer.”
Tonight the Chicago Fire were the potato. They need to figure out how to be the egg. Hendrickson is yet to find the answer to that riddle.
The Chicago Fire will return home next Saturday at 7:30 against the New York Red Bulls.