The Fire couldn’t have picked a more fitting way to officially end their playoff hopes.
After building a two-goal lead, the Fire capitulated in the last half hour of a 3-2 loss to Charlotte FC, suffering the defeat when Karol Swiderski scored in the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time. With the defeat, the Fire were eliminated from postseason contention for the fifth consecutive season.
And coach Ezra Hendrickson was ticked. Very ticked.
“It’s just us not wanting it enough,” Hendrickson said, with a hoarse voice. “I want to apologize to the fans that they have to go through that a second time this year, in a game this important, that we can put ourselves in a good position to extend our [playoff hopes] at least another week, then a couple weeks, extend our playoff hopes and we just come out the second half and just decide we’re not going to defend, we’re not going to play disciplined and just do whatever we want.
“I want to apologize for that, because that’s not good enough.”
The first time the Fire squandered a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss, it was in July and followed by a five-game unbeaten streak that included four wins.
This time, there is no coming back for the Fire. Not that they would deserve another chance, and Hendrickson said it was like “11 individuals” playing in the second half.
“As far as how it happened, it’s just them wanting it more than we did,” Hendrickson said. “It’s not acceptable. I’m very upset, I’m very disappointed right now. That 45 minutes, second half, that’s not a team… that was not a good-enough team I felt. All across the pitch in the second half, we just did not stick to the game plan. Guys weren’t playing their roles.”
Captain Rafael Czichos was a little more calm, but also pointed.
“There are no excuses,” Czichos said. “We lost it today. We lost the whole season today. We lost the chance to have a little chance for the playoffs still. You can see everybody is so disappointed. It’s hard to explain.”
A loss like this should force significant introspection from Hendrickson, his players and owner Joe Mansueto, who has to decide whether to bring back sporting director Georg Heitz. But what was already clear – and emphatically confirmed Saturday – is that the Fire are not built to win and need more changes before 2023.
“We are missing a little bit of consistency,” Czichos said. “It’s hard to explain 10 minutes after a game after a tough loss against a team that’s fighting with us for a playoff seed. I don’t know. It’s hard.”
Though Czichos meant the 2022 Fire are missing consistency, losses like Saturday have been a running theme for the franchise for over a decade. At the start, this year felt like it could be different, with eight points through four games and a seemingly stout defense plus the arrival of Xherdan Shaqiri.
But a 10-game winless streak and significant injuries that exposed the Fire’s depth once again did them in.
The reality of the situation seemed to hit Gabriel Slonina very hard. A Fire homegrown who’s on his way to Chelsea in January, Slonina desperately wanted to help the Fire return to the postseason.
Unless Slonina’s back next season on a loan, that won’t be happening.
“It’s difficult. It’s hard to process,” Slonina said. “My mind is just cloudy right now. I don’t have much words. It’s just difficult to take in.”
Hendrickson was struggling with what he had just seen, and not quite ready to talk about the lessons he’s learned in his first year with the Fire.
“Tonight is still in my mind right now,” Hendrickson said. “My focus is about what happened tonight, because regardless of what happened throughout the season, regardless of what mistakes we made through the season, we had the opportunity tonight to, at the least, extend our playoff hopes and we come out and do what we’re supposed to in the first half and we don’t finish out the game in the second half.
“That’s what’s on my mind right now. That’s what’s bugging me right now.”
A lot of Fire fans feel the same way.