“It’s simple. When we get in these positions, we have to fight. The mentality has to be better. And it’s all about competing. It’s all about fighting for the badge…”
Those were the words of ex-Fire Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson following the team’s late collapse against FC Cincinnati. On that night, the Fire saw a late 3-1 lead collapse at home, with two late goals slipping through, perhaps the most dramatic of the Fire’s late-game struggles in 2023.
Towards the start of this season, the Fire lacked the ability to dig deep in high-pressure situations. Unfortunately, Hendrickson didn’t have an answer on how to fix it, despite his best efforts. Ultimately that’s what cost him his job, and changed the narrative of the Fire’s Spring from one of a resurgent team to the familiar story of the perennially underachieving Men in Red.
That disappointment against Cincinnati in March is the complete and total opposite of what we saw this past weekend when the Fire hosted Atlanta United. Yes, the final score of 3-3 was the same, but the mood after the final whistle could not have been more different, and the way the team got there was much more admirable. Head Coach Frank Klopas’ post-game comments on Saturday reflected that:
“[I’m] extremely, extremely proud and our fans, of what the team showed today, the character that they showed.”
The Fire went down a man early but battled from behind and scored twice with just ten men on the field and without their most crucial defensive midfield presence, Fede Navarro. Then, even after falling behind 3-2 in the second half, they fought back once more and earned a scrappy late equalizer through teenager Georgios Koutsias.
“We wanted to win the game, we believed we could and then the team showed that,” Klopas said. “Instead of crumbling like you’ve seen in the past, where we just fall, that never happened, from the starting whistle to the end. Even when there were setbacks with the second yellow and then we were the ones equalized in the end and had the chances, even to win the game.”
The way in which the Fire responded to adversity this weekend was the complete reverse of how the team reacted earlier in the year. Every player on the field left everything out there. Xherdan Shaqiri is looking much more lively on and off the ball, Maren Haile-Selassie is showing he is a real contributor, Chris Brady continues to be excellent between the sticks, and even the bench is stepping in to make an impact going forward. Though dealt a difficult hand with Navarro’s early sending-off on Saturday and numerous frustrating calls going against them, the Fire showed fight and passion for the full 90-plus minutes, and they were rewarded.
Klopas has been the reason for this change in approach, and he’s been at the center of the Fire’s uptick in form at home. Unlike the Fire’s other coaches of the last few years, he’s a Chicago guy, through and through. As a member of the 1998 double-winning team and someone who’s been around the team for the vast majority of its existence, he knows what it means to represent the Fire and what it means to be a part of this team. Klopas has instilled that passion – for the club and for the city – in his team, and it will be crucial for the remainder of the season.
— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) May 21, 2023
“I’m very fortunate that I have an opportunity to be involved in this game that’s given so much in my life, in the city and the club that I love. I have passion because I love what I do. If you do something that you don’t love, if you have no passion, I told the players, then you need to go find another job. But all these guys have tremendous passion and love what they do and it shows, like they love this club and the team.”
That’s the message that this team needed: the motivation to fight for every second ball, every aerial duel, every set piece, and right until the very end.
Klopas’ most iconic moment, and perhaps the most iconic moment in the history of the club, was his golden goal in the 1998 U.S. Open Cup final. There’s no better messenger, therefore, than him ahead of the team’s midweek Open Cup round of 16 match in Austin.
The players know this; Haile-Selassie described it as “really, really important for the Club and for ourselves,” and Brian Gutiérrez described tomorrow’s game as one the team will give “blood, sweat, and tears for.” Just as the team showed determination and fight in the previous round against St. Louis, the Fire will have to battle hard to win on the road at a difficult place to play. Under Klopas, though, that task doesn’t seem at all insurmountable.