It was a sight that many have grown accustomed to.
Once again Chicago Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson arrived at the post-game press conference looking mad as hell. He tried his best to mask that feeling and stay composed and positive, but it was clear that he was incredibly frustrated.
You couldn’t blame him. The coach had just seen his side blow yet another lead, with this one coming via an 89th minute equalizer. The way the goal happened was the worst thing about it, as the opposition scored off a simple corner.
It was the third time they had dropped points from a winning position at home this season, which is especially remarkable considering that’s half of their Soldier Field contests. That’s unforgivable, and Hendrickson knows it.
“It's ridiculous now,” said the head coach following the result. “And quite frankly, I'm fed up with it.”
However, it seems like the fanbase is starting to get really fed up with him. The #EzraOut hashtag picked up a lot of steam following the final whistle, and this moment was the turning point for a decent chunk of supporters. You can’t blame them either, as Chicago only has 11 points from nine games, and they’re outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite the fact that nine teams are now above the red line due to the new postseason format.
Hendrickson is certainly on the hot seat, and even though he won’t be fired before the Fire’s next game or even the game after that, a poor run of form could see him let go quite soon.
So, how can he save himself? Well, he has to learn from his previous mistakes.
Asking for trouble
Hendrickson has struggled when it comes to making the right substitutions throughout his tenure in Chicago, and this past weekend was yet another example of that.
He ended the match with four fullbacks on the pitch for crying out loud. Starters Arnaud Souquet and Miguel Navarro were in their usual positions in the back four, while Jonathan Dean and Alonso Aceves were the two wingers supporting the attack. That led to Chicago having next to nothing going forward, even with Xherdan Shaqiri on the pitch.
Dean and Aceves are probably at their best as wingbacks, but they’re much closer to being fullbacks than they are to being wingers. Hendrickson put them out there for their defensive cover, and the goal was clearly to hold on to the 1-0 lead rather than add to it. That’s never worked for the Fire, and it didn’t work again this weekend. The likes of Brian Gutiérrez, Chris Mueller, and Maren Haile-Selassie all had to sit on the sidelines as the team’s attack faded away.
Another reason for the team’s struggles going forward late on? Kei Kamara.
Don’t get it twisted, Kamara has been an excellent acquisition for Chicago. He already has four goals for the club, and at times he’s been their only threat in the final third. However, he’s not someone who should be going the full 90 at this stage. He’s 38-years-old.
Hendrickson had him play the entire game. Kamara certainly tried his best to do something near the end of the contest, but he should not have been in that situation. That’s especially true considering the fact that Georgios Koutsias, the club’s recent U22 initiative signing, was sat on the bench watching the action unfold. He never came in, though, as Aceves and Dean got the nod instead.
There was another interesting substitution that happened early on in the match. Centerback Carlos Terán unfortunately picked up an injury, so he had to come off, and Mauricio Pineda was the man to replace him. That was an intriguing move at first because Pineda’s mainly been used as a defensive midfielder. He certainly can play at centerback, but him going in instead of more established centerbacks Wyatt Omsberg and Kendall Burks caught the attention of supporters.
That was until people realized that Omsberg and Burks weren’t even on the bench to begin with. Hendrickson didn’t include them in the matchday 18, so they couldn’t be subbed on at that stage. Pineda did put in a solid shift, but maybe it would’ve been better to have a proper centerback in the box to defend that final corner at the end of the game. (It turns out that Omsberg was actually hurt, but the club never listed his injury beforehand, which is another thing altogether)
You know who was on the bench? Jairo Torres. The head coach mentioned him post-game, saying “there was no instance where we could get him on the pitch tonight” and that “we were hoping that he could play 20 minutes.” Why was he on the bench then? In an ideal world the player could have come on with the Fire up big and no pressure on him to perform. That never happens with this team, though, so hoping for that was a mistake, and it cost the club an option off the bench.
On another day with another series of substitutions, Chicago probably wins that game. However, Hendrickson’s choices throughout the contest were what ultimately cost his side.
The Shaqiri situation
Speaking of substitutes, there’s Xherdan Shaqiri.
When the starting lineups were announced, there was actually cause for celebration amongst the Fire fanbase. It seemed like DP Xherdan Shaqiri had finally been benched in favor of homegrown Brian Gutiérrez in the battle for the #10 spot.
Guti had been the main man for most of the campaign when Shaqiri was hurt, but when the latter was cleared to return the previous week against Atlanta United he strolled right back into the middle of the park, forcing the youngster into a deeper position. Shaqiri was not close to good in that contest, which caused a bit of an uproar online.
Thankfully Hendrickson made the right call this time and gave Gutiérrez the nod, cementing himself as the starter in that position. Or so we all thought.
Turns out Shaqiri was actually hurt again, and that he couldn’t have started anyway. This information came out during the post-game press conference, even though the player was never listed on the injury report. That meant that Guti was only the number 10 by default.
Shaqiri came on for Gutiérrez with about 20 minutes to go and had another poor showing, even if he had no help. Despite that, there’s still reason to believe that Hendrickson will turn to his big-name Designated Player once he’s healthy again. It’s what he has always done.
That would be a big mistake.
Gutiérrez is simply better at the moment, especially in that particular role. He brings so much more energy to the side, as he’s able to run up and down the pitch. He can carry the ball going forward, and now he has the ability to pick out the killer final pass. Shaqiri’s technical talent is still there, but the movement isn’t.
It also makes much more sense to push Shaqiri out wide instead of Guti. The latter still isn’t comfortable on the wing, and he’s a lost figure there most of the time. Shaqiri, meanwhile, was a winger for almost his entire career, and he was a star at the World Cup when he was playing on the right wing for Switzerland.
There’s also the fact that Gutiérrez is literally 12 years younger. The club should be doing everything they can to help him develop into a top-tier talent.
Then again, Hendrickson knows all of this already. There’s no way he doesn’t. There must be some off-the-field factors influencing his decision making, like Shaqiri being the Fire’s face of the franchise. He can’t let that matter anymore.
Make the right decision already.
If Shaqiri is back in the lineup and back in the number 10 position this weekend, there’s going to be an uproar online, and it’ll be completely deserved.
A quick note on something I mentioned earlier - Hendrickson has to take full charge now.
There have always been rumors that Shaqiri has been forced into the coveted #10 spot because of his big-name status. He’s someone that can appeal to the soccer fans in the city that don’t care about the Fire, especially the so-called “EuroSnobs.” Having him be the main man in the lineup would reflect his status as the main man off the field.
Only a select few at the club will know if there’s any truth to that, but the head coach has to make sure that any decision with the team is made by him and him alone. He’s the one who picks the starting lineup. He’s the one who chooses what player plays where. At the end of the day everything will come back to him, whether the team is winning or losing. He’s the one in charge.
That doesn’t stop there. Hendrickson has been a fiery figure in several post-game press conferences, but that anger doesn’t matter if he doesn’t do anything about it. He can talk about how it’s not good enough, but until something changes, his words are empty.
There’s a meme that roughly goes, “Dudes will complain about their Subway order, my brother you made the sandwich.” That’s how it feels with the current Chicago head coach at times. He needs to do something at this point. Maybe he changes the shape of the team late on, or maybe he stops trusting certain players.
Hendrickson obviously can’t run onto the field to clear away a late corner, but he still shoulders almost all of the responsibility when it comes to the Fire securing results. He has to act like it, putting himself first and pushing aside any other potential factors.
There’s a real pressure for things to turn around, both for the team and the coach.
It’s obviously still very early on in the season, but Chicago will be facing a crucial stretch somewhat soon. After a home game against Atlanta United on May 20th, they will go on a run of six road games out of seven. It’ll be three away matches, a brief return home, and then three more away matches.
Considering how bad the Fire have been on the road in recent memory, this is a real worry. No one knows how many points they’ll be able to pick up. They've been a bit better this year, and they did win in Miami earlier on in the campaign, but supporters know that they can’t expect much from the team whenever they leave the city.
That’s why they have to make the most of their games before that run happens. If they aren’t back in the playoff picture by then, they could fall into an inescapable hole thanks to a lengthy winless run. Chicago has to win their home games, or at least one of them, to try and set themselves up for the brutal stretch of fixtures.
Hendrickson also needs to get results in order to make sure he even makes it to that stage. The #EzraOut hashtag had been picking up steam on Twitter, and now there are rumors that he’s very much on the hot seat.
That checks out. The Fire haven’t been picking up enough points, especially at Social Field, and especially when they’ve had the lead in games. The roster is flawed, sure, but it’s still a very talented one. This team needs to be in the top-nine in the Eastern Conference at the absolute least.
If the head coach can’t get them there before their run of road matches, then it might be time for Chicago to move on from him.
That would be a shame. Hendrickson is someone a lot of people root for, and it’s clear that he has potential. He’s not the best tactically, but he comes across as a real leader, and the locker room likely still supports him.
Potential isn’t enough anymore. Hendrickson needs to be better, and he has to get better before it’s too late.