As last Saturday’s match between Fire and FC Cincinnati entered the dying minutes, just as a sense of optimism started growing amongst the Fire faithful gathered – or huddled, considering the winds and 23° F temperature at kickoff – disaster struck, as the Fire conceded not once but twice after the 84’ settling for a 3-3 draw. The result, somehow, felt classic Fire – turning a solid performance with goals to match – into disappointment. As MenInRed97 contributor DJ pointed out in a Reddit post, the draw marked the 16th time the team had blown a lead in the 94 games the team has played since 2020.
To be fair, every team will give up a lead at some point in the season – if not, soccer could just be played with a golden goal rule, with one goal then everyone goes home. Heading into their game against Inter Miami last week, Toronto FC, then was winless, going 0-2-1 despite having held the lead at some point during each match. They lost their season opener to DC United 3-2 off a goal in the 9th minute of stoppage time.
Last season, the Philadelphia Union – who tied LAFC for most points in the league at the end of the year – failed to hold on to a lead five games in a row from their April 16 loss to Toronto FC through their 1-1 draw May 14 against NYRB, going 0-4-1 in that stretch. In fact, the Union would end up blowing a lead six times in the 2022 MLS campaign, while the Fire did so just five times.
Yet blowing leads feels like a particular Fire problem. This is undoubtedly partly due to the fact that no lead feels safe with the team – allowing Charlotte FC to score 3 times from the 67’ last October to turn a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 defeat, the second time that the team managed to turn a two-goal lead in the second half into a loss that season. More importantly, the blown leads often slot easily into a broader narrative about the team.
The Union’s stretch of blown leads last season was preceded by five straight victories, and even though they often had to settle for a draw, the Union’s loss to the Fire in Chicago in their last match of June was just their second defeat of the season. Following that, Philadelphia would string together five-game-winning streaks two more times before the end of the year.
By contrast, the Fire’s first blown lead of last season, when they lost 2-1 against NYRB was the team’s fifth straight match without a win, and was the first time the team managed to score in those five games.
Their second blown lead of the year on May 18 – also to NYRB, though they managed to draw this one – as well as their third, when they lost to Toronto on May 28 – came during the same stretch that saw the Fire go without a win from March 18 through the middle of June. By the time of the loss to TFC, it felt as if the team was cursed – regardless of how well they’d played. The team’s performance against Toronto was dominant – holding 63% of possession and peppering Toronto’s Westberg with nine shots on target, and yet they came home without a point to their credit.
The contrast with the Union is telling – while the Union’s blown-lead streak felt like a low point of the season, the team only had one defeat in that stretch, so on the whole, what was their low point of the season wasn’t that low. The Fire’s blown leads, by contrast, were the closest thing the team had to a bright spot during stretches of dismal play. If a draw is a high point, what hope can a team really have for the season?
A similar narrative is forming around the Fire’s 2023 campaign. Fire fans could take heart in a come-from-behind draw against NYCFC in their home- and season-opener. After the team’s defeat to Philadelphia, they could take some stock from the team’s performance, outplaying an elite Union team for much of the game and managing to keep a clean sheet through the majority of the performance – but with the draw against Cincinnati, it felt like an all-too-familiar narrative. The Fire had a 10-game and a five-game winless streak last year, and it now feels that the team is once again going to have a season where victories are few and far between – if the team can outplay an opponent for 75 minutes and not get a win, what hope does the team have for the season?
It’s still early in the campaign, to be sure, and the team has played well – outplaying expectations if we are, to be honest – so far. Last year, the gulf between performances and results cost the Fire, but that doesn’t have to be the case this season. Whether the team’s performance against Cincinnati will feel like a high point or a low point, will only be determined by the team’s results over the next few games.