The vibes were good at Soldier Field.
The sun was somewhat out, and the weather was pretty nice. There was a solid crowd in attendance, and everyone that was there was in good spirits. The Chicago Fire had gotten off to a solid start to their contest against St. Louis City SC, and they had momentum on their side.
Life only got better near the end of the first half when Rafael Czichos slotted home from close range to put his team in front. That goal proved to be all that Chicago needed, as they held onto the clean sheet and secured an important three points.
It was also their second win that week, and their second straight win over new rivals St. Louis. That was massive for the fanbase, who had been involved in a lot of social media beef with the opposition.
The atmosphere was a stark contrast to how things were the previous weekend. The Fire were blown out by Nashville SC on the road on Saturday night, and then head coach Ezra Hendrickson was fired on Monday morning. There was a real sense of panic, both for this year and for the foreseeable future.
Then came Frank Klopas. Good ol’ Frank Klopas. He was appointed the interim manager for the rest of the season, and he’s since led Chicago to their aforementioned victories.
It’s been a lovely start to life back in charge for him, and even though no one’s sure what the future has in store, that doesn’t even matter right now.
The third pillar
Tradition. Honor. Passion.
Those have been the hallmarks of the Fire since the club’s creation back in 1997. Sure, there’s been extended periods where the club has forgotten about one, or two, or all three of those mottos, but they’ve always been around in the background.
Klopas is certainly making sure that the final of those pillars is at the forefront of the club right now. He’s preached passion whenever he’s gotten the chance, where it was at his introductory press conference, his pregame press conferences, or his post-game press conferences. Those are just the moments I’ve seen.
Only heaven knows how often he mentions it in private, whether it’s to his players, his staff, or literally anyone in his life. I’ve brought in a new reporter to the press box recently, and even though she's not fully aware of the club’s history, she’s already said that “he talks a lot about passion, doesn’t he?” after only being at two press conferences.
You can’t say it hasn’t had an effect on the team, though. Chicago wasn’t lazy or anything under Hendrickson, but it’s clear that they have a new life to them at the moment. There’s an added pep in their step, an extra bit of energy. Maybe it’s just the new manager bounce, but maybe there’s something more to it.
The players have certainly noticed.
“Everyone's so comfortable with Frank, and you can tell how much he loves the club,” said defender Wyatt Omsberg following the Open Cup win. “It means so much to him. So just in the pregame talk today he really got us going.”
“Frank is a super passionate guy. He loves the club. He just wants the best for the club,” said midfielder Fabian Herbers. “And he’s always with his heart, in every moment, in every training session, in every pregame speech, so it was more about the motivation today.”
“He’s a really passionate guy, a really outspoken guy, he gives us a lot of energy and confidence in our game,” said attacker Brian Gutiérrez after Saturday’s win.
This re-established passion has only made the Fire more difficult to play against. They’re the ones winning the 50/50 challenges. They’re the ones getting to the ball first. When you add this to the talent they already have, then you potentially have a recipe for success.
It’s also helped mask some of the new manager’s deficiencies. Look, everyone kind of understands that Klopas isn’t the greatest tactician the world has ever seen. He’s had chances as a head coach in the past, and even though he wasn’t woeful, he wasn’t good enough to stay around. That’s why he ended up as an assistant.
That doesn’t matter right now. He’s lit a spark under his players, and they’ve responded perfectly. They’re not just playing for themselves, they’re playing for him, and by proxy, they’re playing for the club and its supporters. Should that have always been the case? Sure, but better now than never.
There will be a point were Klopas will have to improve, though. The more and more he only preaches passion, the closer he gets to becoming a proper “passion merchant” as the kids on Twitter would say. That message can only come across so many times until it loses meaning, and the players go back to being frustrated.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a prime example of this. He thrived as an interim manager at Manchester United early on because of his love for the club, and those good vibes were enough to start. However, when it came to the biggest games and the toughest moments, he was exposed as a coach, and his tenure ultimately ended in disaster.
Then again, Klopas can cross that bridge when he gets to it. That’s a problem for the future. For now, his passion can be the solution for the club’s many problems.
Oh hey, that Xherdan Shaqiri guy is pretty good at this whole soccer thing.
You can’t necessarily blame Fire fans for forgetting about that. The Designated Player had a disappointing debut campaign, and this season was going very poorly for him. He was injured for most of it, and when he did play he either wasn’t fully fit, or he was just not playing well.
Shaqiri not doing much was one thing, but supporters really turned on him when he started to affect the development of Brian Gutiérrez. The homegrown had blossomed in the number #10 role when Shaq was out, but when he returned, Guti was either forced to settle for a spot on the bench or a different role in the team where he didn’t perform as well.
The whole situation was looking rough at the start of the week. However, things are now a lot more peachy.
Shaqiri started in the #10 role in the Open Cup game, and he went for about an hour. That appearance was crucial, as it allowed him to build up some more match fitness, and it gave him the chance to play alongside Gutiérrez, who was on the left wing. The two had a few moments together, but the most important thing was that they learned about each other's movements and tendencies, whether they were on or off the ball.
That led to the pair shining on Saturday afternoon. A pattern of play quickly developed, as Guti would do most of the running out wide, and he’d get the ball to Shaqiri in the middle of the park. He would then play the big ball, switching it over to whoever was in space on the opposite side of the field. The two even had some brilliant moments of linkup play between each other.
His performance faded a bit as the contest went on, but it was still the Designated Player’s best outing for Chicago in quite some time.
The main reason for that was his health. It was the first time in a really long time that fans got to see a fully fit Shaqiri. He wasn’t bothered by any issues in the early stages of the contest, and he was able to just focus on playing the sport. He was free.
The other thing? The DP is feeling some real love from Klopas. I mentioned earlier how supporters had turned on the player, and there had always been a ton of pressure on him to save the team, even when things were out of his control. The new head coach has made sure to hype up his star man whenever he can, and that's boosted the feeling in the locker room.
During a post-game interview with Shaqiri, Klopas walked into the locker room and immediately started telling everyone about how good the number 10 had been. “Shaq, Superman, that’s the DP!” Shaqiri couldn’t hide his smile.
It was a little moment, but it could mean a lot for the Switzerland international. He’s been under so much scrutiny ever since he’s come to the club, and even though it’s mostly been fair, it’s nice to see him finally be happy and relaxed following a game.
Maybe that’s what will get the best out of him. At the very least it’s helping him play much better right now.
The near future looks promising.
Chicago travels to Charlotte FC midweek, and while that’s a tricky away day, the Fire has shown that they can win there. Then they host a struggling Atlanta United side who are right there for the taking. There’s a genuine chance Chicago can secure six more points.
However, that’s when the good times might come to an end. The Fire endure a brutal stretch following that contest, as six of their next seven games will be on the road. That’d be tough for any side to go through. Considering Chicago’s history on the road, that could be a horrific run.
That’s when we’ll see what Klopas is really made of. He’ll have had enough time with the team at that point, and it’ll be up to him to adjust to any poor performances or results. He won’t be able to rely on good vibes anymore. Will the spirit in the locker room stay positive? Only time will tell.
Chicago can worry about that when they get there, though. There’s no reason to worry about the future at the moment. The fanbase has had to deal with so much pain and disappointment in recent years that they should simply enjoy the good times while they’re here.
That’s what Klopas is doing right now.