Fire offense awakens in 3-1 victory over Inter Miami

By Brian Sandalow

For the Sun-Times

The Fire aren’t quite looking to next year already, but they know what they have to address in the offseason.

“I think our ability to put the ball in the back of the net is a big concern,” Fire coach Ezra Hendrickson said Wednesday. “Right now, with 12 shutouts, you’d expect a team with 12 shutouts to be above the playoff line but it’s a team that’s not scoring, with [28] goals on the year, that’s just not good enough.

“We have to make sure that we get better in that area and that we have players who can put the ball in the back of the net when called upon and when the opportunities are there,” Hendrickson added. “Too many times this year we have lost games because of missed opportunities.”

The Fire converted their opportunities Saturday, though that hasn’t been true for most of the year.

Despite their 3-1 win over Inter Miami in Bridgeview, the Fire are last in the league in scoring with 31. Before Jhon Duran’s goal in the 40th minute, the Fire hadn’t scored in 441 minutes since a Chris Mueller strike against Philadelphia on Aug. 13. Xherdan Shaqiri’s goal in the 64th gave the Fire a 2-0 lead, and was the high-priced designated player’s fifth of the year.

Gonzalo Higuain’s 77th-minute goal broke up the Fire’s chances at a 13th shutout, but Duran’s second in the 87th sealed the win and helped them draw within six points of an Eastern Conference playoff spot with four matches left. That the Fire (9-13-8, 35 points) are still a longshot to make the playoffs despite 12 clean sheets is an indication their offense hasn’t done enough.

Crucially, the Fire have only won five of their 12 shutouts, costing them important and attainable points and probably a spot in the postseason.

“A lot of these 0-0 games, if we just score one goal, we win those games and it turns your whole season around,” Hendrickson said. “There’s a lot of times this year we have kept teams to zero but just couldn’t find a way to score just one goal, sometimes on the road, which is not conducive to a winning season. So we definitely have to get better in the final third.”

To get that right, the Fire brass – whether it’s still sporting director Georg Heitz or a potential replacement – will need to bring reinforcements. After last offseason, the Fire were confident they had found the missing ingredients to improve their offense.

That wasn’t the case, and the process of plotting their next moves has already begun for the Fire.

“We do have an idea of what we need to get better at next year and [owner] Joe [Mansueto] is very supportive of what it’s going to take to get the team better because at the end of the day, we’re all on the same page and we all want success for this team but we know we have to continue to get better because everyone around us is getting better,” Hendrickson said. “We have to make sure that we identify the issues and work to rectify them and be better going forward. So there’s a lot of communication about what needs to happen going forward.”

If there were more nights like Saturday, the issue wouldn’t be as pressing. After Saturday’s match, Shaqiri said the Fire need to be more ruthless in front of goal and understand each other better.

“This is the thing, what we need to do better because we need goals and we need three points,” Shaqiri said. “For that, you need to score goals.”

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