What Needs to Change for the Chicago Fire?

The problems continue to mount for Chicago Fire FC. A 3-1 defeat at home to the Columbus Crew last Saturday made it four consecutive losses and seven games winless for the Men in Red. A perennial mid-table club, the Fire have gone from the typical playoff-chasing (but never attaining) team to a rock-bottom side in 2024. They sit 14th in the MLS Eastern Conference, having earned 10 points from 14 matches. Something has to give, but the question is what that something is.

Why Can the Fire Not Score Goals?

The one bright spot for the Fire, from an otherwise disheartening match against Columbus, was Carlos Terán’s 85th minute header into the back of the net. Rarely is a consolation goal from a defender cause for celebration, but this was only Chicago’s second goal since 6 April. It came about in rather ridiculous fashion, as the Crew failed to clear the ball from a corner, thus launching a game of header pinball that Terán would ultimately win.

While it was a positive sign, the goal is also a stark reminder of just how poor the Fire’s attack has been. Hugo Cuypers, the Belgian striker signed for a club-record 14 million euros in the off-season, has yielded a return of just three goals so far in MLS, despite starting every match. There is no denying that Cuypers has been far from good. His finishing has not been up to par and his positioning needs work. That being said, the driving force behind the Belgian’s slump is not himself – it is the complete lack of service.

Playmaking is a Persistent Problem

Xherdan Shaqiri, on paper the most talented player in this Fire squad, has been consistently lacklustre in his play-making ever since his arrival in 2022. He has registered 11 assists in 69 MLS appearances, mustering only one so far this year. This disappointing statistic is not for lack of effort, though.

This season, Shaqiri has attempted an average of 50.28 passes per match, placing him at the 83rd percentile for all attacking midfielders in the league. However, his pass completion in that time frame is at a shockingly poor 73.2%, which ranks him at the 34th percentile. As captain of an undeniably talented, yet underperforming team, Shaqiri needs to start bearing his weight. Manager Frank Klopas seems to agree, having benched the Swiss for the clash with Columbus.

With the captain struggling, Fabian Herbers comes to mind as a possible leader. He’s been with the club since 2019, and he registered four goal involvements in the first five games of the 2024 season, including a goal and an assist against the Philadelphia Union. Unfortunately, the German has been deployed in a deep-lying role as of late, limiting his ability to contribute to the attack.

Despite an impressive 81.8% pass completion rate, Herbers averages only 4.43 progressive passes per game, lower than 66% of MLS midfielders. Klopas is understandably reluctant to start out-of-form defensive players in place of Herbers, but the latter has shown much more promise in the no. 10 role. It would be a waste to keep him in the double pivot, which should instead feature Kellyn Acosta and one of Federico Navarro and Gastón Giménez.

20-year-old Brian Gutiérrez started the season in phenomenal fashion but has since leveled off. He constantly seems disconnected from the rest of the attack, despite being one of Chicago’s longest-serving players with 101 appearances to his name. His pass completion rate of 74.3% is only slightly better than Shaqiri’s. That being said, he is an excellent finisher with the pitch awareness of a far more experienced player.

If the Fire was to build their attack around him, Gutiérrez could thrive. It is a risk to place the club’s highest-paid player (Shaqiri) into a secondary role, but the coaching staff are running out of ideas. The time for a bold decision is now.

Is Klopas the Right Man to Lead the Fire Forward?

It is easy to see why every Fire fan has a soft spot for Frank Klopas. He is a legend of the club, having been one of its stars in the triumphant early days. Since then, he’s taking on two interim-turned-permanent managerial stints, both of which have offered a mixed bag of results.

Right now, the Fire is statistically worse off than they were 11 weeks into the 2023 season, when Ezra Hendrickson was sacked. Klopas cannot be kept around solely for sentimental reasons – the team needs results. But could he yet turn things around?

Running Out of Ideas

One of Klopas’ definining characteristics is his optimism. He’s always looked at the positives, even in defeat. Early on in this season, there were hints of success to come for the Fire. Every problem seemed like a minor fix, and the individual quality on display was promising. Since then, however, the problems have grown and Klopas’ optimism has diminished. He was noticeably frustrated in the post-match press conference after Columbus, whilst retaining his ever-professional and well-spoken demeanor.

The manager was quick to assume the blame for the team’s struggles, immediately praising his players for their “effort and attitude” in the match against the Crew. “It’s the little things that just don’t seem to be going our way right now,” observes Klopas, “it’s tough for me and tough for all of us, the fans care, we all care.”

There is no denying this fact, with 23,319 fans packing Soldier Field for the latest match, just short of the season high set in the home opener. Rather ironically, a small chorus of anti-Klopas chants could be heard in the final minutes of the game. This sentiment is not lost on the gaffer, who openly stated that “the responsibility is on my shoulders.”

Throughout the season, even within individual matches, there’s been plenty of tactical experimentation. The traditional Klopas formation of 4-2-3-1 wasn’t working in the first hour of the game against Columbus, prompting the coach to switch to a 3-5-2 of sorts. This was not enough for a comeback.

“I’ve tried different things in training, different combinations with players,” says Klopas, “but it just seems right now, looking at the record, we’re not playing very well.” It’s this seeming helplessness that is the biggest warning sign right now. None of the coaching staff’s ideas seem to be working, naturally leading to the question of whether they are still the right fit for the club.

Klopas has always been well-liked by everyone involved with the Fire, including the players. But there’s no hiding from the fact that this is a club in a state of disarray right now. Goalkeeper Chris Brady, convincingly Chicago’s best player at the moment, said on Saturday that there is “just a hint” of optimism amongst the players at the moment. “Sometimes the level drops, and the optimism disappears.”

One wonders if this team, in the dire situation that it is, could capitalize on football’s most magical concept, the new manager bounce. Granted, the options for a replacement are highly limited, with the Fire job not a hot commodity at the moment.

For the time being, Klopas stays on. ”We’re desperate right now, it’s desperate moments,” says the coach. “We’ve got to find wherever it is to get a result.” Chicago’s next fixture is away to DC United on Saturday. The hosts sit 9th in the table, holding the last playoff spot. For Chicago, it is an opportunity to cut the gap and start a season turnaround. For Klopas, it’s a chance to save his job. No man wants to help the Chicago Fire more than he does. All eyes will be on Audi Field this weekend.

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