Critical breakdowns in late-game situations reflect poorly on Fire coach Ezra Hendrickson

Forty-three games into his time with the Fire, Hendrickson is still searching for a way for his team to hold leads.

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Coach Ezra Hendrickson and the Fire play Saturday in Nashville.

Coach Ezra Hendrickson and the Fire play Saturday in Nashville.

Courtesy of the Fire

Coach Ezra Hendrickson delivered a familiar refrain after the Fire’s 1-1 tie Saturday against the Red Bulls. Once again, the Fire had dropped points by allowing a game-tying goal in the waning moments of a match, a recurring theme during Hendrickson’s tenure in Chicago.

“It’s the same thing that has happened three times now: late in the game, it’s a corner kick and we decide we’re not going to mark our man,” Hendrickson said. “On the corners, each man has a responsibility, each man has a player that they’re supposed to be marking. They know it, it’s not like we don’t know it. Against [FC Cincinnati], same thing happened; last week against Atlanta, same thing, we don’t mark. And again tonight, we don’t mark.

“I wish I could explain it to you, but I have no explanation for it.”

The last part of that quote is troubling, and casts more doubt on whether Hendrickson will ever fix the problem.

Forty-three games into his time with the Fire, Hendrickson is still searching for a way for his team to hold leads. After squandering two-goal advantages at home twice last season, Hendrickson swore that wouldn’t keep happening.

Unfortunately for the Fire, the issue is getting worse. On Saturday, Hendrickson and the Fire (2-2-5, 11 points) sat back for much of the second half and let a struggling Red Bulls team dictate play. But at the same time, Hendrickson used Xherdan Shaqiri as a substitute in a move that would generously be described as contradictory. Though Shaqiri wasn’t at fault for the tying goal, he’s not exactly known for his defensive exploits and didn’t help the Fire hold back the Red Bulls.

Hendrickson, however, was supposed to be a coach who’d understand how to lock down leads. So far, that hasn’t been the case, and the Fire have missed opportunities to bank points during the home-heavy start to the schedule, which takes them to Nashville (4-3-3, 15 points) on Saturday.

“We just have to get people on the pitch who are going to man up in situations like this — when the game is on the line — and say, ‘My man is not going to beat me. We are not going to lose this game because I let my man go free in the box,’” Hendrickson said. “Because it’s ridiculous now. And quite frankly, I’m fed up with it. But I have to take responsibility because at the end of the day, I’m the head coach, and it’s my team and we’re letting these points slip away.”

In fairness to Hendrickson, sporting director Georg Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer haven’t handed him great rosters, though this year’s team has more depth than the 2022 edition. And perhaps the leads will be easier to hold when standout defensive midfielder Federico Navarro is back to full fitness.

Regardless, late leads should be more secure than they’ve been for the Fire, even if Hendrickson is fed up with allowing costly late goals.

“Obviously, I’m not out there marking but I have to get guys on the pitch who are going to step up in these pressure situations and just not get beat, just not get beat,” Hendrickson said. “We’re at home, a minute or two or so to go, they get a corner and we lose our mark. Once again. It’s just ridiculous and it has to stop.”

It’s unclear whether Hendrickson knows how to make that happen.

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