Chris Mueller made his home debut for the Fire on Saturday night.
Courtesy of the Fire
During the early days of the season, the Fire looked like one of Major League Soccer’s most improved teams. Under coach Ezra Hendrickson, the Fire seemingly had established themselves as one of the league’s stingiest defenses and got off to the franchise’s best start since 2009.
But things have changed following a March 19 win over Sporting Kansas City. The Fire’s defense has fallen off, the attack has been too quiet and injuries and disciplinary issues have taken their toll, leading to a six-game winless streak in league play plus a humbling US Open Cup elimination at the hands of third-division Union Omaha.
Those poor results continued in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to FC Cincinnati.
Facing a Cincinnati team that’s perhaps the biggest surprise in MLS, the Fire didn’t help their own cause. Captain Raael Czichos, back from a one-game suspension he served during the Fire’s 4-1 loss at Atlanta United, gave Cincinnati the lead with a 33rd-minute own goal when his attempted headed clearance popped over Gabriel Slonina after the Fire goalkeeper strayed too far from his net.
Jhon Duran headed in a Xherdan Shaqiri corner kick for his first goal with the Fire, tying the match in the 83rd minute.
Instead of building off that score, the Fire handed Cincinnati another goal. Two minutes later, a Slonina giveaway led to Luciano Acosta’s game-winner, extending the Fire’s MLS losing streak to four.
At least the Fire had some significant reinforcements Saturday that made them a little more complete.
Starting on the left wing, Chris Mueller made his first Fire start and showed why he’s earned a pair of US national team appearances, forcing a 45th-minute save by Cincinnati goalie and Naperville native Roman Celentano. Still recovering from a left hip issue, young designated player Jairo Torres debuted for the Fire and showed flashes after replacing Mueller in the 71st minute.
Mueller and Torres will be expected to add dynamic elements the Fire have needed out wide.
“I think they will help improve our attacking, which we all know has been lacking, and we need to get better at,” Hendrickson said Wednesday. “But also, these guys’ work off the ball is very, very good, too. We don’t ask much of our wingers as far as defensively. They have specific, defined roles. But these guys are willing to put in the work off the ball, also.They just bring a lot of quality to the team, which is going to help us in training, making [training] more intense and then which in turn helps us on game days.”
Beyond the Fire’s recent struggles entering Saturday’s contest that dropped them to a 23% chance per FiveThirtyEight to make the playoffs, the game was important because of the upcoming schedule. Their next three matches are away from home, beginning Wednesday at the New York Red Bulls.
On Wednesday, Hendrickson said the Fire weren’t looking ahead to that road swing but recognized the significance of Saturday’s match, albeit for another reason.
“I just want to say this is a very important game for us,” Hendrickson said. “We have taken a skid. We have been on a bit of a skid recently, and we just need to get back to our way of playing where we are difficult to break down, we are difficult to score [against], and then continue to improve on the attacking side of things because the last three or four games or so have not been really good for us.”
Saturday’s result wasn’t any better.
NOTE: Kacper Przybylko (back) missed his third consecutive match. Chinonso Offor once again took Przybylko’s spot in the first 11.