Countless times this season, fans of the Chicago Fire have been left wondering, “what just happened?” Never more so than today.
The Fire left Soldier Field tonight empty-handed after a 2-1 loss against the Columbus Crew, but it’s practically impossible to explain how. And why.
Despite the crushing 4-1 loss on Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup at the hands of the Houston Dynamo, Frank Klopas opted for an unchanged starting XI. Chris Brady remained out with injury, meaning Spencer Richey got his third MLS start of 2023, while Rafa Czichos, Mauricio Pineda, and Arnaud Souquet made up the back three. Maren Haile-Selassie reprised his role as a makeshift right wingback, with Miguel Ángel Navarro opposite and Gastón Giménez once again partnering Fede Navarro in the middle. Xherdan Shaqiri and Brian Gutiérrez played together as dual number tens behind Kei Kamara up top.
Admittedly, the first half played to a similar tune as the Fire’s last two MLS matches against Toronto and Cincinnati. Both teams struggled to get anything started, and the game didn’t watch any momentum either way. The Fire’s best opportunity of the first half came when a ball over the top from Shaqiri found Gutiérrez, and while he was fouled, VAR ruled that he had been in an offside position. A flurry of fouls from both sides constantly slowed the game down, and it entered the half level 0-0.
The start to the second half was relatively uneventful until the visitors found the breakthrough just before the hour mark. A long-distance shot from Cucho Hernández deflected unexpectedly off of Fede Navarro, and the ball’s path redirected past Richey and into the back of the net. Following the goal, Columbus were much more comfortable and controlled more possession.
As the half progressed, it seemed like it really wouldn’t be the Fire’s day. A Shaqiri free-kick found the head of Czichos in the 85th minute, but it was well saved by the goalkeeper. The follow-up effort rattled the woodwork before the ball trickled out of bounds.
It seemed like the Fire had managed to rescue something when they finally managed to score in the 88th minute. A low-driven cross from Miguel Navarro found the main man, Xherdan Shaqiri, and the big-money Swiss DP slotted the ball into the goal. At that moment, it appeared that the superstar had provided a marquee moment, something that has lacked since he arrived in MLS. However, what happened a few minutes later ensured it would be nothing more than a footnote.
Deep into stoppage time, Columbus’ own DP, Lucas Zelarayán, spotted Richey off his line. The Armenian number ten took a shot from inside his own half. What happened next is a moment that will probably be etched into MLS highlight reels for decades because Richey could only watch as the ball looped over his head and into the goal. The injured Chris Brady looked down from his skybox in shock, stunned and emotionless. On the field, Richey turned to the sky, seeking an explanation. It was 2-1 to Columbus.
As the fans made their way out of Soldier Field, they all asked the same question posed at the beginning here. Nobody has an answer. If at any point this season, Klopas or anyone else can find the answer, maybe things will improve. But for now, it will remain unanswered.