The Curious Case of the 2015 Chicago Fire

Kennedy Igboananike celebrates his second goal and the game-winner against NYRB – Mike DiNovo USA TODAY Sports

Kennedy Igboananike celebrates his second goal and game-winner against NYRB – Mike DiNovo USA TODAY Sports

To say that it’s been a down year for the Chicago Fire is an understatement. The troubled club has spent most of the season ranked last in conference and league, and many of its loyal fans are fed up to the point of boycotting the front office.

And yet, Chicago has shown flashes of brilliance at times, demonstrating the ability to take on some of MLS’ best clubs. The Fire couldn’t buy a goal against lowly Colorado (last place in the west, last place in goals scored…by a lot) at home last week, and yet the soccer world was shocked when a streaking FC Dallas club came to town August 2, for a 2-0 loss to the last place Fire.

Inconsistency is the word of the year for Chicago. With lineups constantly changing throughout the year, partly due to injuries and absences, partly due to questionable team selections and tactics, it’s difficult to say what side of the Fire one might see on a given match day. On Wednesday, the Men In Red decided to show the cameras their good side.

As I watched a thrilling back and forth contest end in a 3-2 win for the Fire against the tough New York Red Bulls, I sat and wondered, “Where have these guys been?”

From the opening kick off, Chicago looked organized and determined to get forward. The combination play between newcomer Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike up top was dangerous, something that’s rarely described this club in 2015. It was refreshing to feel excited watching the Fire in attack. Creating chances is actually something Chicago has done consistently throughout the year, but mostly left out the whole scoring goals thing.

As they’ve done with most opponents this year, the Men in Red out-shot the Red Bulls by a count of 17-9 Wednesday night. But unlike much of the season, the attacking players found a final touch that’s eluded them for so many matches.

Kennedy Igboananike stole headlines, as he notched two goals on Wednesday, including the late game-winner. It must have felt good given the criticism he’s received throughout the year from supporters and journalists. Many have critiqued the Nigerian international for his inconsistent play and inability to find the net early in the year.

It was clear that transitioning to Chicago and MLS from Swedish football was not the smoothest process for Igboananike. He couldn’t seem to figure out where and how he fit in on the pitch, moving from the wing, to striker, to the bench and back again. Wednesday night, the goal-scorer looked comfortable and extremely dangerous in a center forward role, scoring two goals and creating problems all night for New York’s defense. He gave credit to his teammates after his superb individual effort.

“It’s a great win for us, and it’s not all about me. It’s all about the team. We fought hard, I think, and we got the result,” said Igboananike after the match.

“It was a great energy for us right from the beginning of the game. We try to tell ourselves that we’re good players and we just have to keep going. We’re never going to stop playing, even if we’re down,” continued the Nigerian international.

He and his new striking partner Gilberto seemed to get along quite well Wednesday night. The Brazilian newcomer has been a source of doubt and controversy recently among supporters, as the Fire picked him up on waivers the same week Chicago gave up its rights of international legend Didier Drogba. The fans might have preferred the star power of Drogba, but the 26-year-old Gilberto demonstrated Wednesday why he could be a promising attacking option going forward.

I couldn’t help but notice his multiple attempts at converting a bicycle shot, though he couldn’t put any on target. Some of those attempts were a bit overzealous, but perhaps his playful approach to the game would do this team some good right now.

“Soccer is all about having fun. There’s professionalism, but if the team is not having fun it’s not worth it. The team was having fun out there, [I] was having fun out there, and the performance was great,” said Gilberto through a translator.

“I have some long term goals, and I want to stay here for many years. Hopefully I’ll do my best and the team will want me here a long time,” continued the Brazilian international.

I’m a little weary of statements like that given the recent failure of the Shaun Maloney experiment. But, I’m pretty high on Gilberto right now. He’s creative, has good energy, and I like his playful attitude. Hopefully he can bring some continuity to this club as it comes into the home stretch towards the playoffs.

The ‘P’ word is something the Fire really doesn’t deserve to even think about after this season. However, Wednesday’s win over a daunting Red Bulls side puts the Fire just two points off of the final playoff spot. Chicago now hits the road for a three-game road trip, and comes back to Toyota Park for just one match in September. It will be an uphill battle all the way, but manager Frank Yallop remains optimistic.

“I feel we’ve preformed better than the points have showed. That’s always a building block for me. I think that circumstances in the season have cost us points: individual errors, guys not being healthy. All of those things come into it,” explained the second-year manager in a post-game press conference.

“I’m forever optimistic. I think we obviously have a big, big hill to climb to make the playoffs. But we’ve got to keep going. Keep moving on,” continued Yallop.

His club will travel south for a quick turnaround this Saturday to face a similarly ranked Orlando City SC side. With Orlando just one point ahead of Chicago in the eastern standings, this weekend’s matchup should have the urgency of a playoff game. Kickoff is set for 6:30 ET at the Citrus Bowl (CSN Chicago Plus).