The dejection was all over the faces of the Chicago Fire players and coaches after Wednesday’s loss in penalty kicks to FC Cincinnati.
Dejection is something many of them could be used to after how last year went. The Fire suffered many defeats last year en route to a second consecutive last place finish in MLS, but there was something different about this defeat.
This time there was disappointment because this team had gotten used to not losing. The Fire hadn’t lost in almost two months, a stretch of 10 games.
Coach Veljko Paunovic has talked ad nauseum about how he wants the team to forge a winning mentality. While that sounds like coach speak, perhaps in defeat the Fire showed that the mentality is here. A team that hadn’t lost in nearly two months was still crushed to see a defeat as well as losing out on one of the trophies available to win this season.
“Of course now what we have to do is adjust our goals,” Paunovic said after the match. “Now we have to move forward and we have to think about playoffs.”
The Fire had so many chances to score against FC Cincinnati, but couldn’t do so against wizard/goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt. That, plus 120 minutes of play added up to why the team was so physically and emotionally drained after the defeat.
“We all learn from this kind of loss,” midfielder Juninho said. “It’s tough to come here and say something, but our boys, I’m very proud of them. They did everything they could to get a result and tonight was not our night. Let’s focus on the next one.”
Paunovic was asked after the match what he learned about the team from that match. Initially he didn’t have much of an answer and said, “I’ll think about it and let you know.”
Thursday over the phone he did.
“We learned that the importance of that one play that we needed in the game, just one pass, one cross, one shot to be accurate in order to win the game,” Paunovic said. “Later it was just that. I can tell, yes, we lack of this, but if you think about the game, then you see that we had the opportunity here, we had the opportunity there. We missed just one play to be done from the start until the end with no interruption or mistakes.”
Paunovic said at halftime in Cincinnati, he and the team compared the match to the 0-0 tie at Orlando in early June when the Fire had a two-man advantage by the end of the match, but couldn’t break down a team focused on defending as its only objective.
“More and more teams will play the way Cincinnati played and the way Orlando played and we will have to learn together to break them down,” Paunovic said. “It all again goes to that one play.
“If we score that goal it would have been a completely different game. The crowd would shut down, we would shut down their defense, they would have to respond and then that’s the case that we were looking for.”
While the Fire will look for answers on how to break down teams that decide to bunker in defensively, the real interesting part will be how a team which was so hot can recover in just a few days. The Fire will get to return home and take on Vancouver on Saturday. The short rest after going to penalty kicks, coupled with the continued absences of David Accam and Dax McCarty, will test the Fire both physically and emotionally again.
Former Fire coach Bob Bradley was recently interviewed on the Beyond the Pitch podcast and had complimentary things to say about the Fire this year, but said this team needs tough tests.
“I do think they need to be tested more in more competitive games,” Bradley said. “I think that’s where you really find out how good they are.”
The Fire are on course to make the playoffs and have a good chance to make a deep run once there. Wednesday’s game was still fairly early in the U.S. Open Cup, but because of how big the game was to the hosts, it felt like a big game regardless.
The Fire’s next big game may not be played in front of more than 30,000 fans, but when it comes, maybe this loss in Cincinnati will be looked back at as one of those tests Bradley was referring to.