By Brian Sandalow
For the Sun-Times
For 45 minutes, the Fire showed the best of their ability. Then they showed why their season is on the verge of effectively ending in July.
Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Columbus Crew was the first match of a three-game homestand for the Fire that will continue Wednesday against Toronto FC and then Saturday against the Seattle Sounders. The Fire came into the day eight points out of a playoff spot, with just a 13% chance to reach the postseason per FiveThirtyEight.
More concretely, to reach the 48-point total that was good enough to reach the East playoffs in 2021, the Fire will need 31 points and average 2.06 per match over their last 15 games to hit that mark.
Over 90 minutes, the Fire (4-10-5, 17 points) started to make an argument that kind of run might be somewhat feasible. Then it became all too apparent why it won’t happen and why they’re last in the 28-team league, turning a 2-0 halftime lead into a gut-wrenching defeat against one of their rivals in front of a frustrated crowd of 15,157.
“We didn’t fight back, we didn’t fight in the second half at all,” coach Ezra Hendrickson said. “We just laid down and let them pass right through us, run by us. When you do that, teams punish you. [There’s] absolutely no excuse to lose a game at home like that, up 2-0 at halftime when all you have to do is manage the game, make sure the team doesn’t score and you win the game.”
The Fire took a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute when captain Rafael Czichos headed a sharp Chris Mueller cross past Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room. The goal was the first in MLS play for Czichos, who scored twice in the Fire’s U.S. Open Cup loss to Union Omaha.
Striker Jhon Duran then made his presence felt in the 41st minute when his low cross snuck through the Columbus defense and found Mueller, who doubled the Fire lead. Mueller, a Schaumburg native, scored for the second time since leaving Scottish side Hibernian for the Fire.
Yet instead of killing off the game and sealing three important points, the Fire allowed Columbus to make things interesting after the Crew changed their shape. Derrick Etienne scored in the 63rd minute to cut the Fire lead in half before Etienne evened things in the 75th. Columbus then took the lead in the 83rd when Cucho Hernandez got behind the Fire defense and chipped the ball over goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina.
Mueller also had issues with the Fire’s fight. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof, which could be worse than a lack of talent.
“Damn near, because you can control your fight,” Mueller said. “It definitely sucks that you’re losing games in areas that you can control. A lot of the goals that we’re giving up are so soft and a lot of them are our own fault. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot too often and it’s costing us crucial points, obviously.”
Any chance of a late Fire comeback was short-circuited when Miguel Navarro was handed a straight red card in the 90h minute. Hendrickson also removed Xherdan Shaqiri in the 80th minute after the high-priced designated player asked out due to a thigh issue.
NOTES: Duran started at striker in place of Kacper Przybylko. Acquired over the offseason from the Union for $1.15 million in allocation money, Przybylko has made little impact, scoring three times.
* Prior to the match, the Fire observed a moment of silence in memory of the victims of Monday’s mass shooting in Highland Park.