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What’s left for Chicago Fire in 2018 after U.S. Open Cup exit?

Aug 8, 2018; Chester, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union forward Cory Burke (19) kicks the ball past Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof (4) during the second half at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Fire’s 2018 season is effectively over.

The Fire lost Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal at the Philadelphia Union. It was the only realistic remaining chance at a trophy, or any measure of success, this season.

The Fire are six points out of a playoff spot, not an insurmountable number. However, they have to pass four teams and most of those have a game or two in hand. On top of that, seven of the Fire’s final 10 matches are against teams in playoff spots. It won’t be an easy closing stretch.

The Fire are one of four teams averaging fewer than one point per match. For comparison, they are on pace to finish only a couple points ahead of the last place teams of 2015 and 2016.

There is still time to turn things around, but there is no immediate sign of that happening. With six straight losses in league play, the team is clearly trending in the wrong direction. Sure, Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic are due back from ACL injuries this month, but it’s not fair to expect either to be a savior coming off major surgery with less than a third of the season remaining.

That’s the long-winded version of saying things are not going well.

The Fire lost 3-0 to the Union, a third loss this season to a team currently outside the playoff spots. After the Fire were on the front foot for much of the first half, they produced one of the worst halves of the season. The Union turned things around in midfield and piled on the pressure before finally getting a goal, then another and another.

With the Open Cup now behind them and the Eastern Conference standings not looking rosy, the Fire are looking at a lost season. There was so much progress in 2017, and there’s still so much talent at the top of the Fire’s roster. It’s hard to believe things have gone so poorly in 2018. Fire fans may find themselves quoting rock band Talking Heads’ 1980s hit “Once in a Lifetime” with, “Well, how did I get here?”

General manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunović teamed up for their first seasons in 2016. It went largely as expected. They inherited a last-place roster and didn’t improve in the standings. It wasn’t clear at the time, but some significant pieces to the relative success of 2017 had been put in place. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent, Joao Meira, Luis Solignac and Michael de Leeuw all joined in 2016 and were regular starters for a playoff team the following year. Building blocks had been put in place.

That foundation could support a winning team when the star power of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty joined for 2017. The Fire briefly led the Supporters’ Shield race in the summer, but faded to third place. An ugly 4-0 home defeat in the knockout round of the playoffs ended a once-promising season.

Still, a 55-point season and the first playoff appearance in five years showed progress. It also gave hope for 2018.

However, a mediocre start has turned into a dreadful July and August. Outside of an Open Cup quarterfinal at home against a USL team without a coaching staff, the Fire have lost seven straight against MLS opposition. They have allowed 20 goals in that stretch.

Meira’s return to Europe in the winter has left an opening at centerback. None of Jonathan Campbell, Christian Dean and Grant Lillard stepped up in Meira’s spot. The Fire have allowed the second-most goals in MLS.

In addition, weaknesses that led to last year’s season-ending slump, namely goalkeeper and attacking midfield (especially with de Leeuw set to miss a majority of this season), weren’t improved upon. Young goalkeeper Richard Sanchez was trusted with the job, but has been mistake prone this year. Just as Patrick McLain appeared to take the job from Sanchez, he got injured.

To make matters worse, the Fire have been ravaged by injuries. Matt Polster, who emerged as a dangerous attacking right back, has played only one game due to a knee injury. McCarty has missed a third of the Fire’s MLS matches. Solignac has missed most of them.

So, a drop off in defensive talent and experience, no reinforcements in known areas of need and lengthy injuries to key players — that’s not a recipe for success.

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