So near, yet so far.
The Chicago Fire showed resilience and defensive solidity to battle league-leading FC Cincinnati on the road, but ultimately came up just short in a 1-0 loss. Cincinnati – who had won every game at home in 2023 heading into tonight – are a course for the best-ever MLS regular season points total, but the Fire proved difficult to break down despite a heavily rotated team.
The rotations to the Fire’s lineup were made with an eye toward the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal coming up on Tuesday, and Frank Klopas presented six changes from Wednesday’s starting eleven. The team stuck with the 3-4-2-1, but it took a drastically different appearance. Kendall Burks, Wyatt Omsberg, and Arnaud Souquet made up the back line, but Alonso Aceves and Fabian Herbers slotted in as wingbacks. Jairo Torres earned his second start since opening day next to Fede Navarro in the middle, with Brian Gutiérrez, Georgios Koutsias, and Kacper Przybyłko in the attacking three.
The visiting Fire weren’t the only team clearly prioritizing the Open Cup. Pat Noonan lined up his Cincinnati team with a few rotations, including benching Brandon Vázquez, but there was still more than enough quality in the eleven. MVP candidate Lucho Acosta was one; he was the man who single-handedly took down the Fire in March with his late impact off the bench, but in the first half, he struggled to find space and create chances.
It wasn’t just Acosta who couldn’t provide a real threat in the opening half because both teams struggled to do so. Cincinnati seemed more likely to find a breakthrough but didn’t manage to get a single shot on target in the first half. On the other hand, the Fire were content to soak up pressure and provided very little going forward; they ended the first half without a shot on goal.
At the half, the Fire replaced Przybyłko with Gastón Giménez and pushed Torres into the front three, a substitution which breathed some more life into the midfield on the ball, but it was Cincy who found opportunities first. Quimi Ordóñez, fresh off of returning from the U-20 World Cup with Guatemala, came close in the 51st minute, narrowly missing from inside the box. Aceves’ crossing provided a threat from the left side for the Fire, and in their biggest chance of the game up until that point, he nearly found Herbers at the back post in the 55th minute.
At the hour mark, both teams made triple changes to introduce starters who had been rested from the start. Cincinnati introduced Júnior Moreno, Vázquez, and Dominique Badji, while a minute later, Klopas brought on Xherdan Shaqiri, Kei Kamara, and Maren Haile-Selassie. The substitutions brought a factor of intrigue into a game that was moving quite slowly to that point.
Ultimately, though, it was one of the starters who would prove decisive, and unfortunately, it came for the home team. Despite having a difficult match, Acosta took the ball down in the 82nd minute and put Burks on skates before sliding the ball in at the near post. Richey got a touch on it, but his movement and positioning made it more difficult to save. The late goal came from the first shot on target of the entire match.
There are certainly positives to take away from such a tight game against such a high-flying opponent, but in the playoff race it’s points that will matter, not performances, and the Fire dropped one today. The first ever loss at TQL Stadium will hurt, but there’s a much more important task coming up on Tuesday: the U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal.
The Fire will host the Houston Dynamo at Bridgeview this Tuesday at 7:30 PM as they seek to win their fifth Open Cup.