The Chicago Fire begin their longest homestand of the season Wednesday in desperate need of points — a lot of them — if they want to end the 2021 Major League Soccer season with a respectable record, let alone be in playoff contention.
The next four matches ultimately could prove to be a crucial stretch that at least partially determines the futures of key figures — including several important players and coach Raphael Wicky, whom the Fire have a team option on after this season.
That isn’t to say Wicky’s or anyone’s job necessarily is on the line, but the Fire coach is aware of the importance of picking up points at Soldier Field with about a quarter of the season already played.
“Of course we know that and of course we are aware of that,” Wicky said last week of the homestand. “We have a lot of home games and we know that this is very important for us. We also know historically in this league, (if) you win a lot of home games, you have big, big chances to make the playoffs.
“But that’s not the approach I’m going to go (with) to the team. I’m not going to talk to the team about the game in a week or the game in 10 days or in two weeks. But we all know the importance of the home games and of (earning) points at home, that’s for sure. We know that. But still in preparing the team, I prepare just every single game by game. That’s my approach. I’ve always had that and that’s how we do it now. But we (are) aware of the importance of those games.”
What makes this a crucial juncture for the Fire (1-6-1, 4 points) beyond the need for points is the schedule: The second half is skewed with away games as a result of sharing a venue with the Bears. From Aug. 1 to the Nov. 7 season finale, the Fire — who have not won a true road game since October 2019 — have seven home matches versus 12 away.
Up first for the Fire on this homestand is FC Cincinnati (7 p.m., WGN-9), the only team below them in the standings at 1-5-1.
After that, however, things get considerably more difficult with matches against the Philadelphia Union (4-2-3, 15 points), Atlanta United (2-1-5, 11 points) and Orlando City SC (4-1-3, 15 points). Philadelphia, who already have won at Soldier Field this season, and Orlando were playoff teams in 2020, and the Union won the Supporters’ Shield last season for having the best regular-season record.
Certainly, the Fire will remain somewhat shorthanded as they have all season: Goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm (ACL) continues to have setbacks, winger Stanislav Ivanov (meniscus) has yet to play, and winger Przemysław Frankowski (Poland) and designated player Gastón Giménez (Paraguay) are playing tournaments with their national teams.
But the Fire also know that, regardless of available personnel, they need to improve upon a dismal four points from a possible 24 — the worst points per game (0.5) in MLS. Their minus-9 goal differential is the second worst in the league, behind only Cincinnati’s minus-11.
And when conceding the game’s first goal — as they did last Saturday in their 2-0 loss to the Columbus Crew — the Fire are 0-15-4 under Wicky dating back to last season.
But perhaps more concerning for the Fire is their lackluster goal tally.
They have found the back of the net just four times — the fewest in the league — and two of those were scored in the first 11 minutes of the season. Attacking midfielder Luka Stojanović has accounted for three of the goals while designated player Robert Berić has just one — a far cry from his 12 goals in 23 matches last season.
Against the Crew last Saturday, the Fire failed to register a single shot on target.
“The final product is just … not good enough and we have to work on that,” Wicky said after the game. “We have to keep working on that. But it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t precise enough. You have to be precise. The last pass has to be precise. Your shot has to be precise and your decision-making has to be better or precise. That’s, I think, what is missing. That’s why the stats often look good but right now it doesn’t go into results.
“So if we can fix that, I think we (get) results. But first of all we need to fix that we fight for the teammate, 90 minutes, not 45, not 60, but 90 minutes and in every duel.”
Patrick Nyarko joins the academy staff
The Fire on Monday announced former player Patrick Nyarko joined the team’s youth academy as an assistant coach.
Nyarko, who had 19 goals and 39 assists in eight seasons with the Fire, will work with the under-19 squad overseen by coach Ludovic Taillandier.
“After spending a decade as a player in MLS,” Nyarko said in a statement, “hopefully I can bring that experience to the players as they learn about what it takes to make it as professionals, both on and off the field.”
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