It’s that time of the year… when the Chicago Fire’s remaining early season optimism comes to a screeching halt.
The Fire stumbled to a 3-0 loss at Nashville SC this weekend, with a hat trick from Hany Mukhtar condemning their fate. Across the board, it was the Fire’s most demoralizing performance of the season, as they looked totally outclassed and outmatched by their opponents.
Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson rolled out a starting lineup full of surprises, making eight changes to the eleven. The team changed to a 3-5-2 formation, something Hendrickson has only done once before during his tenure. With Carlos Terán missing out at center back with injury, both Kendall Burks and Wyatt Omsberg entered to join captain Rafa Czichos at the center of the defense. Alonso Aceves and Jonathan Dean both entered at wingback, replacing Miguel Ángel Navarro and Arnaud Souquet respectively. Fabian Herbers came in for Gastón Giménez in midfield, whilst a struggling Xherdan Shaqiri replaced breakout star Brian Gutiérrez. Georgios Koutsias made his first start up top alongside Kacper Przybyłko as the duo replaced Kei Kamara. Chris Mueller was excluded from the squad.
After all those changes, though, the 3-5-2 only survived twenty minutes. A knock to Rafa Czichos meant that he was forced to come off early in the first half, and instead of introducing Mauricio Pineda as a possible defensive replacement, Hendrickson opted to sub on Maren Haile-Selassie and return to his preferred 4-2-3-1.
The injury pause prevented the game from catching any early rhythm, though reigning MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar did have a few promising moments in the first half for the home team. After the 30th minute, the game began to come to life, and Brady made a few saves to keep the game level, including a big one on Daniel Lovitz. Przybyłko and Haile-Selassie also had an opportunity to take the lead on a counter-attack, but a poor touch from the latter ended the play.
Things began to unravel just when it seemed like the Fire had made it to halftime unscathed on the scoreboard. A silly, unnecessary push from Navarro on former Fire captain Dax McCarty gave referee Mark Allatin the right to point to the penalty spot. Mukhtar confidently converted the penalty, giving Nashville the lead entering the half. The Fire went into the break having failed to record a single shot in the opening 45 minutes.
Though the outlook was bleak after going behind just before halftime, Hendrickson countered with two substitutions. Giménez replaced the anonymous Herbers, while Gutiérrez came on for Koutsias on the left wing. The Fire didn’t go down without a fight, though, and Shaqiri very quickly managed to get the team’s first shot of the game after coming out for the second half, albeit it was straight at the goalkeeper.
Gutiérrez’s introduction also brought life to the attack. Though he was on the wing, not his natural central position, his entry added something that the Fire were lacking, and his pace and intelligence instantly caused problems for Nashville. Shaqiri created an excellent chance for Gutiérrez a few minutes into the half, but the shot was saved.
That momentum was fleeting, though. A beautiful, fluid transition moment from Mukhtar and Jacob Shaffelburg forced Burks to give away a penalty, the team’s second such concession of the night. Mukhtar converted, though Brady did go the right way. Nashville doubled their lead, and put the game beyond any reasonable doubt.
The cherry on top for Nashville came in stoppage time when Mukhtar added his third. Brady initially made a good save on Fafa Picault’s shot, but he couldn’t prevent the rebound from the reigning MVP, who notched his second hat trick against the Fire.
Changes will be coming for the Chicago Fire. Though the season is still relatively young, there’s certainly a feeling that it can all unravel even further. As unlucky as they’ve been in many of the games so far, it seems like there needs to be a bigger shift in the team.
With a busy week ahead, it seems like the season is really hanging in the balance already.
The Fire will face St. Louis CITY in the U.S. Open Cup this Tuesday at 7PM.