At the outset of the season, the Fire appeared to be one of Major League Soccer’s most improved teams. Under coach Ezra Hendrickson, they seemingly had established themselves as a stingy defensive group and got off to their best start since 2009 after sporting director Georg Heitz retooled the roster.
But things changed after a March 19 win over Sporting Kansas City. The Fire’s defense has fallen off, the attack has been too quiet and injuries and disciplinary issues have taken their toll.
Those poor results continued in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to FC Cincinnati that extended the Fire’s winless streak to eight matches across all competitions. Making the defeat more painful was how this loss arrived, one that brings back memories of the Fire’s ignominious recent past.
“It’s one of those things where we’re going through the rough right now and we’ve just got to find a way to get ourselves out of it,” Hendrickson said.
Facing a team that’s perhaps the biggest surprise in MLS, the Fire (2-5-4, 10 points) didn’t help their own cause. Captain Rafael Czichos, back from a one-game suspension he served during the Fire’s 4-1 loss at Atlanta United, gave Cincinnati the lead with a 33rd-minute own goal when his attempted headed clearance popped over Gabriel Slonina after the Fire goalkeeper strayed too far from his net.
Jhon Duran headed in Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner kick for his first goal with the Fire, tying the game in the 83rd minute and giving them hope they could rally for a much-needed victory.
But instead of building off that score, the Fire handed Cincinnati (6-5-1, 19 points) another goal two minutes later. Slonina’s giveaway led to Luciano Acosta’s game-winner, extending the Fire’s MLS losing streak to four.
Winger Chris Mueller said he approached Slonina in the dressing room after the match and told him things like that happen and the only way it becomes a problem is if he lets it affect his confidence.
“You need to just wipe it,” Mueller said he told Slonina. “This sort of stuff happens. We’re going to back you as a team; you’ve done well for us so far.”
At least the Fire had some significant reinforcements as striker Kacper Przybylko (back) missed his third consecutive game.
Mueller made his first Fire start and showed why he has made two U.S. national-team appearances, forcing a 45th-minute save by Cincinnati goalkeeper and Naperville native Roman Celentano. Still recovering from a left hip issue, young designated player Jairo Torres debuted for the Fire and showed flashes after replacing Mueller in the 71st minute.
Yet even with Mueller and Torres adding much-needed energy out wide, things are starting to look too familiar for the Fire. According to FiveThirtyEight, their chance to make the playoffs dipped to 17%, they remain last in the 14-team Eastern Conference and they’ve all but wiped out their promising first month.
Once again, they’re finding ways to lose, and now the Fire’s schedule is turning against them. Their next three matches are away, beginning Wednesday at the Red Bulls.
To get something from those games, the Fire will have to revert to their early-season form and forget about one of their most crushing defeats of the year.
“This one definitely stings because you lose another three points at home and it was a winnable game, one that we definitely deserved to take all three points out of,” Mueller said. “But we all learn and sometimes that sort of stuff happens in [soccer] and you just have to move forward. Hopefully, we’re on the better end of the breaks.”