The Chicago Fire and the five stages of grief
Photo by Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2022 Chicago Fire season is going exactly how you’d expect a Chicago Fire season to go.

After early glimpses of promise and potential, the team has already fallen apart. They’ve only won two of their first 14 games of the campaign. They’ve got the joint-worse attack in the league in terms of goals scored, and their defense hasn’t been much better.

It’s exactly what fans should be used to at this stage. Some did not see the signs early on, though, and now they’ve been forced to go through their yearly cycle of sadness once again. What yearly cycle, you may ask? Only the five stages of grief.

Denial

It took a bit of time for the cycle to get going, to be fair.

Chicago’s start to the season was a pretty excellent one. They went on a five-match unbeaten run to open up the campaign, and they only conceded once during that time. There was some concern about their lackluster offense, but the assumption was that things would improve on that front eventually.

They didn’t, of course, but that’s a story for later. The team’s run of results started to turn eventually, and their first loss of the year came six games in. That particular game wasn’t really a concern, though, as the Fire were on the road against Orlando City, and they played the entire second half with ten men.

The team was then shockingly eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup by lower league side Union Omaha 10 days later. That was bad, but Chicago did roll out a second-string starting lineup for that contest, so the loss made some sense at least. Whether or not it was the right call to play a bunch of backups in the one competition the club could have actually won is another argument for another day, of course, but fans hadn’t quite turned just yet.

The next two games didn’t really lead to that either, even though both were pretty tough defeats. The Fire fell 3-0 away to Minnesota United in what was a closer game than the scoreline indicates, and then they lost 2-1 at home to the New York Red Bulls. The latter game was a whole mess, though.

After the hosts jumped in front, a weather delay halted proceedings, and the momentum of the match shifted following the restart. New York were better, but Chicago really shot themselves in both feet, having two players sent off while also giving away a penalty that led to the final goal of the night. The refereeing wasn’t great, to be fair. With all that going on, it was tough to have any real takeaways from the contest. 

So, even though things had begun to fade a bit, supporters were still feeling good about this year’s side. Head coach Ezra Hendrickson had seemingly fixed the defense, and there was an argument that the Fire would have been near the top of the league standings if a few things just went their way. 

No need to panic, right?

Anger 

Wrong.

Everything kind of came to a head the following week away to Atlanta United. Now, just like the aforementioned losses, there were some explanations for this one. The Fire were playing at one of the toughest environments in all of Major League Soccer, and both sides were dealing with a number of injuries, so there was a chance that the game was gonna end up being a crapshoot anyway.

The 4-1 defeat was a deserved one, but it was the performance of the players that really sent the Fire fanbase into madness. For the first time all season, it looked like the players had stopped trying. They didn’t completely give up on each other, but they definitely realized they were going to lose this match before it was officially over, so the effort wasn’t really there.

Then came the questions surrounding Hendrickson. The offense wasn’t getting any better, and that was especially true in terms of star man Xherdan Shaqiri, who had failed to really get going. The reason for that was because he was being played out of position, used as an attacking midfielder instead of a winger. The defense was starting to slide too.

Just like that, the luster was gone. Things got even worse in the team’s next game, as they lost 2-1 to MLS banter franchise FC Cincinnati. Once again, the loss wasn’t as bad as it seemed since the two goals Chicago gave up were via comical errors at the back that rarely ever happen. Rafael Czichos chipped his own goalkeeper with a header, and then a botched clearance by Gabriel Slonina led to the deciding goal.

However, those moments were just proof that the old Fire were back. Early results had fans thinking that maybe this year’s team actually knew how to get points in ugly fashion, stealing draws and wins when they didn't necessarily deserve them. That was not the case anymore. This outfit was just like the others, who somehow always managed to lose games in one way or another. That’s what really riled up supporters. They had effectively been lied to, and now they were forced to sit back and watch yet another season potentially collapse right in front of them. It didn’t even look like the players cared enough to stop the slide themselves.

Things were bad offensively, bad defensively, and even the team’s discipline had taken a hit. All in all, it was time to smash the panic button.

Bargaining

That was until the team’s two-game road trip to New York.

Despite only picking up one point from the two contests, those matches somehow injected some life back into the fanbase.

First came a midweek visit to Red Bull Arena. Chicago fell behind early in typical fashion after giving away a stupid penalty, but they responded very well, completing a quick comeback thanks to goals a bit before and after the halftime break. Another error from Slonina led to the Red Bulls equalizing, but the Fire retook the lead through Shaqiri, who finally managed to score from the run of play. The good times didn’t last, though, as one final goal from the hosts minutes later meant that the points were shared.

Even though the result was ultimately a disappointing one, fans were somewhat optimistic following proceedings. If not for a strange goalkeeping mistake, then Chicago actually could have won the game, which was on the road! They looked a bit better going forward, especially with the recent arrival of Chris Mueller

The NYCFC contest that weekend was a lot less eventful, as the reigning MLS Cup champions only won 1-0 thanks to yet another penalty. It was a pretty ugly 90 minutes, as neither side did much of anything, and the only goal came from the spot. For the Fire, though, that didn’t sound too bad. They were away against one of, if not the best team in the league, and they effectively beat themselves. On another day, there could have been a pretty impressive upset on the cards.

This was without a fully healthy Jairo Torres as well. The Designated Player who was signed in the offseason technically joined the club at the start of May, but injury issues kept him on the sidelines early on. He was forced to settle for brief cameos off the bench to begin, although he started playing for longer and longer as the weeks went on. It was almost time for him to start, and him starting would be huge since it would seemingly allow for Shaqiri to finally be used out wide.

He wasn’t the only player returning to fitness either. No one in particular was dealing with any long-term injuries, but a number of different key talents were missing on any given day. 

So, maybe Chicago wasn't that bad after all. Maybe they just needed to stop shooting themselves in the foot. Maybe they just hit a rough patch. Maybe they just needed some players to return to the lineup.

Maybe there was reason to hope after all.

Depression 

Maybe not.

The Fire’s most recent game was the sporting equivalent of a kick in the nuts.

Away to fellow bottom-dweller Toronto FC, this match was Chicago’s chance to really turn things around. As per usual they put themselves in an early hole, conceding first after another poor showing from Slonina. However, the Fire slowly started to grow more and more into the contest, and they took off following the start of the second half.

A bit of magic from Shaqiri tee’d up Carlos Terán for a game-tying header, and even though Torres had a goal ruled out for offside, Chicago were still able to jump in front later on after Kacper Przybyłko uncharacteristically buried a volley into the back of the net. 

It wasn’t just the goals that made the team look good. It was the fact that they took complete control of proceedings. Sure, Toronto might not be the best side on the planet, but the Fire just kept pushing forward, and it didn’t look like they were done scoring.

Five minutes after taking the lead, they lost it. In standard Chicago fashion they shot themselves in the foot, as Federico Navarro stupidly took out Alejandro Pozuelo right on the edge of the penalty area. The foul was still technically committed in the box, though, so the referee pointed to the spot, and Pozuelo converted moments later.

Ok, not ideal, but the Fire still had plenty of time to restore their advantage and secure the three points everyone thought they deserved. Even if they didn’t, they’d at least get a point on the road, which is always valuable no matter the circumstances.

Instead, they gave up another, completing a remarkable collapse. It was all a bit too easy for Pozuelo, who danced by one defender and then never had to deal with another since they all dropped off for some reason. As a result, he picked his spot when it came to the finish, and his shot went off the underside of the bar and in. 

Utter deflation for Chicago. They still had time to save themselves, and Shaqiri even hit the crossbar right after the goal, but their fate had already been sealed. This was just one of those games where they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and there was nothing anyone could have done about it.

The Fire losing, or at least disappointing everyone, is just inevitable at this stage. The fanbase was certainly feeling it too. There was no anger, or looking for silver linings, or anything really after the match. Just sadness. 

This result was going to sting for a while, especially since the team had an extended break following the loss. They couldn’t bounce back the next week and try to forget about what happened. All they had was time to think about what had just transpired. The thoughts weren’t fun ones.

Acceptance

We’re still not here quite yet, though.

Despite all that has happened this year, and all that has happened over the course of the past two decades, a good chunk of supporters still have some hope for the rest of the campaign.

Torres hasn’t fully gotten used to life in Chicago, so a good run of form from him could elevate the entire team. If he can gel with Shaqiri and Mueller, then the club will have one of the most dangerous attacking trios in the entire league.

Slonina’s recent performances are obviously a concern, but he’ll almost certainly be back to normal soon. He’s a huge talent, and he doesn’t even need to be great on a weekly basis, he just needs to be good enough. If the backline in front of him can get back to the way they were to start the season, then his job will be even easier.

The Fire also historically tend to do well during the summer months of the season, which is exactly what we’re in right now. Add to that the fact that their upcoming schedule following the break isn’t the toughest, and there’s reason to believe that they can do more of the same this time around.

However, at the end of the day, none of that will matter. Torres could find his feet, Slonina could get back to his best, Chicago could go on a run during these next few months. All of that could happen, and very well might, and the club would still find a way to leave fans sad, angry, or disappointed.

This is the Fire after all. Even after two rebrands, a change of stadium, and yet another roster overhaul, this is still the Fire. They just find a way to let everyone down, whether it’s by missing the playoffs or by winning the Wooden Spoon. Something stupid always happens.

The worst thing is, there’s nothing this fanbase will be able to do except sit back and watch the horrors unfold. At some stage that will probably happen with this year’s team, but until then, supporters should enjoy the little optimism they have left. 

Until they have to accept the realities of supporting the Chicago Fire.

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