That’s the ball game.
The Chicago Fire’s 2023 season came to an end Saturday in a dry, dull 1-0 loss at Citi Field against New York City FC. The rollercoaster season quietly withered away in the Big Apple, with the Men in Red hopelessly stranded just one agonizing points below the playoff line.
With everything to play for, Head Coach Frank Klopas stuck with his trusty 4-2-3-1. Georgios Koutsias and Xherdan Shaqiri kept their starting positions following great performances for their countries during the international break. Miguel Ángel Navarro went to the bench, and Maren Haile-Selassie’s great form also couldn’t earn a start. Fede Navarro returned after a weeks-long injury, replacing suspended Gastón Giménez.
The narrow and short pitch at Citi Field prompted end-to-end action in the first half. Chris Brady and Matt Freese made big saves at opposite ends of the pitch, with the NYC keeper making a huge stop against Fabian Herbers off of a rocket in the 16th minute. Talles Magno responded with an opportunity of his own a minute later but saw his shot flash wide. The hosts had several more chances, but none could find the back of the net; top scorer Santi Rodríguez had an opportunity to tap it on from practically on the goal line, but missed the ball entirely.
Frustration began to grow late in the half for both teams, two groups truthfully unworthy of a playoff spot but competing for one in an expanded 18-team bracket. Even when New York City thought they had scored a scrappy rebound, it was taken away from them, with the ref awarding a free kick… to NYCFC, earlier on the play. On the other end, Shaqiri looked a better player than he has most of the season and came close from a free kick of his own which Freese saved.
Early in the second half, Carlos Terán was involved in big moments at either end of a pitch; a headed opportunity from of a Shaqiri free kick bounced off the ground and then just over the bar, and he made a huge sliding challenge defensively a few minutes later. Both teams looked extremely vulnerable against the ball, but neither seemed too intent on scoring.
Then, shortly after the hour mark, a moment of magic from the hosts finally provided the breakthrough. Argentine midfielder Julián Fernández made a brilliant turn, then curled the ball into the top left corner. There was nothing Brady could do about it, and it left the Fire back line stunned.
The Fire, already somewhat depleted by players’ returns from international duty, were out of solutions. Not all the results around the league were quite going their way, meaning a win would be necessary to make the playoffs, and down a goal, that grew increasingly unlikely. Kei Kamara was introduced for just his second appearance in a month, but it was too little too late, and other additions of Haile-Selassie, Mauricio Pineda, and Kacper Przybyłko provided little difference.
The final whistle blew, and the Fire depressingly slumped into a 13th-place finish. They had no shortage of opportunities through Shaqiri and Kamara late but it was to no avail. As it turned out, Montréal’s loss at Columbus and New York’s draw at Nashville meant a win would have been enough not just for a playoff spot but a home wild card game, but the Fire inexplicably missed the kinds of goals that they have been scoring from all season.
Now, the season is over, the Fire have been extinguished, and its back to square one this offseason.