To the surprise of many, the Chicago Fire are now unbeaten in four matches, and sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand. They’ve been doing so without three potential starters, Xherdan Shaqiri, Federico Navarro, and Jairo Torres, and seem to be catching some momentum in the standings. Riding the high of a 2-1 home win over then-undefeated Minnesota United, attention now turns to next Saturday, when the Fire will take on the struggling Philadelphia Union.
Injured trio set to return
The Fire’s opening day draw with NYCFC was certainly tainted by a pair of injuries in the first half, as both of the team’s starting central midfielders had to come off with injury. Fede Navarro, arguably the team’s best midfielder since arriving in 2021 from Argentina, has been a huge loss, and without him, the team has struggled to control the midfield. Torres, one of the team’s two DPs, has not quite had as smooth a transition to life in MLS, but if he can find his best form, he’s someone who will raise the ceiling of this team.
Xherdan Shaqiri is the team’s highest-paid player and the other DP. He was substituted in the second half of the Fire’s second game of the season in Philadelphia and hasn’t been back since. Though Shaqiri has not been at his best since he arrived in Chicago with the then-highest salary in MLS, the quality and experience he brings to the team are unquestioned.
Neither Navarro nor Torres has played since the first half of the first game of the season, while Shaqiri hasn’t appeared since the previous game in Philly, but Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson says they should all be able to return this weekend.
“We are hoping to have all of them available for this weekend,” Hendrickson told the media on his weekly call. “They will train tomorrow and Friday. We’ll see how they get on in those two training sessions, and hopefully, we can have them in some capacity this weekend.”
It remains to be seen if all three will slot directly into the lineup. Given how well Brian Gutiérrez has been playing centrally as the #10, it’s possible Shaqiri may not come right back in if he isn’t 100%, but the team is distinctly better with Fede Navarro on the field, and if he is able to, he’ll start over Fabian Herbers in the middle.
“Some injuries have kept us from really being at full tilt,” Hendrickson says. “But with Shaq, Navarro, and Torres and these guys coming back, it’s going to be even stronger of a team. It’s going to make my job a little harder as far as player selection, but it’s something I welcome, something that me and the staff are happy to have because it can help us from game to game.”
Looking forward to Philly…
Last week’s win over Minnesota was a big statement for the Fire, but repeating the trick over the Philadelphia Union – even this current, struggling Union team – would be an even bigger one. The Fire came up just short in their second match of the season against the Union, holding on for 89 minutes before losing 1-0 to a late Joaquin Torres goal. Goalkeeper Chris Brady made an error on the goal, his first start of the season, and it’s something he wants to get back.
“That game is one that we’re going to want back,” Brady said after the match last weekend. “Especially them coming here instead of us going in there. It’s tough to play at Subaru Park, but it’s even harder to play here like we’ve shown tonight. So I think that’s a game that we’re gonna stick it to them and get back those three points.”
Center forward Kei Kamara scored twice for the Fire against Minnesota and was the hero last weekend, but against the Union in March, he was sent off in the second half. The 38-year-old, who will most likely start again up top, recognizes the importance of winning these games at Soldier Field. Saturday’s match will be the final game of a three-game homestand.
“We knew coming into these three home games that we definitely need to maximize some points, and that’s what we want to keep doing,” Kamara said on Saturday. “Now we can worry about the next game before we can start thinking anywhere else in the season, but if we continue to play the way we played [against Minnesota], obviously finishing the game all the way, it’s going to help us this year.”
Fullback Jonathan Dean, who made his MLS debut against the Union in the previous meeting, agreed with that sentiment.
“It’s a big game,” Dean told the media today. “It’s the last home game of three that we’ve had, and picking up three points is crucial for us to solidify our positioning as Chicago Fire in this league. [We] lost to them 1-0 at their place, so we are definitely trying to get all three points this week.”