It's still very early days, but life for the Chicago Fire under new head coach Ezra Hendrickson is looking very good.
For years now, the Fire have been one of Major League Soccer's biggest underachievers. They've made the MLS Cup playoffs just twice in the last 12 years and, despite a huge catchment area, have often drawn some of the league's more modest crowds.
Taking over a team that finished 12th in the East with the fewest goals scored and third-most conceded in 2021 was never going to be an easy task. But so far, Hendrickson hasn't missed a step. At the time of writing, the Fire are third in the East and unbeaten after four games with a league-best one goal conceded.
Of course, as a defender in his playing days, it's only natural that Hendrickson would first focus on stopping the Fire conceding cheap goals and making costly mistakes.
“You have to give a ton of credit to Ezra and also CJ Brown and the coaching staff as a whole. From pretty much day one of pre-season, there was an emphasis on being a team that’s hard to score on," Chicago center-back Wyatt Omsberg told 90min.
"We’ve given up way too many goals in the past, whether it be set-pieces or open play, mistakes. Literally day one of pre-season, Ezra said ‘that’s going to change, and it’s going to change right now’. They’ve continued to harp on that. It’s only been four games but we’re happy with the start and we just have to keep going."
Veteran defender Jonathan Bornstein added: “One of the things we always say as a team is if we don’t give up goals we can’t lose, but if we don’t score goals we can’t win. That’s the idea we’re always trying to stick to.”
Omsberg suggested that rather than a tactical shift, the biggest difference Hendrickson has made is with the team's mentality, forcing a tougher and more resilient frame 'for the full 90minutes'.
"With certain players who have a little more experience and leadership, he feels he can come and speak to us on a personal level. With a lot of the younger guys, he strays away from that," said Bornstein.
“But within the whole group, at certain times you can see him being very calm and just explaining information. But he also has that side where if he’s not happy with something, he lets us know. I like that, I like a coach who can show you his emotions and feels like he’s part of it. It really makes it feel like we’re all rowing in this boat together."
German forward Fabian Herbers agrees, telling 90min: "He demands the most of us in every passing drill and if things don’t go well, he makes himself heard and the players know they have to pick it up. He demands the highest potential from the players, and I feel like we transition that onto the field as well.
“If you just go through the motions at training, it’s difficult to flip the switch and really pick it up on Saturdays. So if you train well, that translates into the games. We’ve done well with that so far.”
"Why not us? We can’t we be a good team?"
Of course, the Fire's attack has also started flowing in the last two games, scoring five goals in their last two games to pick up wins over DC United (2-0) and Sporting Kansas City (3-1).
New DP and star man Xherdan Shaqiri has been a driving force behind those results, scoring from the penalty spot against SKC and creating the fifth-highest number of chances (12) in MLS so far this season.
The Switzerland international has been around the block, representing the likes of Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Inter across his career. He's certainly doing his bit to raise the standards in Chicago.
“We know that Shaqiri is going to bring so much quality but he’s also been a really motivating force in the locker room," said Omsberg. "He believes this can be a team that can do special things and wins. He’s really enforced that, saying ‘why not us? We can’t we be a good team?’."
It's not just in the locker room that Shaqiri is setting the tone. Out on the pitch, the 30-year-old is doing his part to add to the Fire's defensive effort and there's no hint of his big-name status getting in the way of him putting the team first.
"He’s been sacrificing for the team on a defensive side as well," Bornstein said of Shaqiri. "I’ve seen him tracking back and putting in a huge effort defensively, as well as offensively. We’ve seen that from Kacper Przybylko as well.
“Defense starts from the top down and we’re getting a lot of help from our attacking players on the defensive side.”
Once again, Hendrickson deserves credit for keeping Shaqiri involved on both sides of the ball.
"The idea that everyone pitches in and brings their effort into defending together is really huge," added Herbers. “It’s a team effort to defend, that starts up-front with the strikers and the wingers. Ezra is doing a good job keeping everyone together."
The first job of any new head coach is to get the players on his side as quickly as possible. It's clear Hendrickson has already done that and is well-loved by all around the club.
Early in the season? Sure. But if Hendrickson keeps the Chicago Fire on this path, the days of underachievement and failure should be behind them.