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Fire miss playoffs as questions loom over on-field direction of franchise

Needing a win to clinch a postseason berth, the Fire lost 4-3 to NYCFC and were eliminated due to results elsewhere.

Robert Beric and the Fire missed the playoffs.
Courtesy of the Fire

All the Fire needed to do to reach the playoffs was finish 10th in the Eastern Conference.

They couldn’t even clear that low bar.

Requiring a win in Sunday’s season finale to clinch a playoff berth in a generous format, the Fire lost 4-3 to New York City FC. Combined with victories by Inter Miami and the Montreal Impact, the Fire (5-10-8, 23 points) placed 11th and missed the postseason for the third straight year, stamping the first Joe Mansueto-Georg Heitz-Raphael Wicky season a failure.

To compound the wound, the Fire finished behind expansion teams Miami and Nashville SC that will meet in the first round of the playoffs.

“I don’t know what really to say,” striker Robert Beric said. “I don’t think that we are so bad that we are not in the playoffs, that’s for sure, that we are not in the top 10 teams. But, something is missing and that is true the whole season.”

No, that doesn’t mean the whole project will fail, but falling outside the top 10 in the first go-around is not a good sign.

Heitz was officially hired Dec. 20 and had to rebuild the roster and bring on a new coach before the March 1 opener. On Dec. 27, Heitz tabbed Wicky to replace Veljko Paunovic and eventually added three designated players.

It’s fair to wonder how much differently the offseason - and ensuing season - would’ve gone if that hire had come earlier. Though president Nelson Rodriguez said in October 2019 the Fire were looking for an executive to handle the first team, Heitz didn’t come aboard until five days before Christmas.

With the clock ticking, Heitz waited just a week to sign Wicky, a former colleague at FC Basel. Before joining the Fire, Wicky spent one year at the helm of the Swiss power but was sacked, and then led the U.S. under-17 team to a last-place finish in its group at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup.

Wicky’s first season in Chicago wasn’t any more successful. And though this Fire team had its moments and shrewd signings, it ended up like many of its predecessors.

“I see a lot of progress on this team but I also see a lot of mistakes which are repetitive, which we have to change,” Wicky said. “But I see a lot of progress in the last three months since we have restarted after [the MLS is Back tournament]. I see that... that gives me a positive feeling to go with that base into the new season.”

The final blow came Sunday.

Following a wild six-goal first half, NYCFC went up in the 77th minute when the Fire’s Miguel Navarro tried a cross-field pass through the Fire box. Valentin Castellanos intercepted and tapped it past Bobby Shuttleworth, extending the Fire’s season-ending winless streak to six.

Missing the playoffs seemed to nullify any personal satisfaction for Beric, who finished with 12 goals.

“We didn’t get in [to] the playoffs,” Beric said. “That’s bad. That’s it. Nothing else to say.”