The Chicago Fire struggled mightily against Major League Soccer's expansion clubs this season. And unless there is a miraculous stretch somewhere within this Fire roster, Sunday's effort against the Vancouver Whitecaps likely spelled the end toward any playoff aspirations.
The Fire fell to Vancouver, 4-2, at Empire Field and were winless this season against MLS's two new clubs, posting a 0-3-1 record against the Whitecaps and Portland Timbers. The lone point was a scoreless draw against Vancouver.
Up to this point, Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas' squad had done its job on the defensive side. But Chicago (2-7-13, 19 points) posted its worst performance in the defensive third this season in a battle between the two last-place teams in their respective conferences.
"I don't know what happened," Fire left back Gonzalo Segares said. "We've been strong defensively in our last games, and today we were just terrible. We made mistakes, we didn't concentrate. It's just tough because we went down so quickly, we tried to fight back, and immediately we were down again. It takes a toll on you."
Eric Hassli netted two goals for Vancouver (3-11-9, 18 points), and teammates Gershon Koffie and Camilo also found the back of the net. The Fire's Dominic Oduro and Orr Barouch provided the scoring for Chicago, but those scores could not make up for the season-high four goals surrendered in the defensive third.
"There wasn't much said," Segares said of the Fire locker room. "Everybody's heads were down. Going into this we were talking about how important it was to make a run, and in the first minute we were down, 1-0, and it was an uphill battle."
The Fire suffered a horrific start as Hassli scored in the first minute to give the Whitecaps a quick 1-0 lead. Shortly after the Fire's Patrick Nyarko attacked following the opening kick, Vancouver responded with Jordan Harvey's deep send from the left side. Fire defender Yamith Cuesta, back from his one-game suspension, attempted to intercept the ball but was unsuccessful. Hassli got the ball and found the upper right corner of the net past Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Oduro netted an equalizer in the 23rd minute, utilizing his speed and deception to beat Whitecaps defender Alain Rochat and tie the score at 1-1. But that tally was short-lived.
In the 24th minute, the Whitecaps' Koffie responded with a shot that bounced over Johnson for a 2-1 lead. Johnson dove to his right to attempt to stop the shot, but the ball went over Johnson's left shoulder and into the back of the net.
Camilo pushed the Whitecaps' lead to 3-1 in the 48th minute, spinning past Fire defender Josip Mikulic and shooting toward the far right post. Camilo got his shot off before the Fire's Daniel Paladini and Cuesta could catch up to get in the path of the shot.
Hassli scored his second goal in the 72nd minute off of a rebound off the left post to extend the Whitecaps' lead to 4-1. Chicago's defense was flat-footed and unresponsive during the sequence.
Fire second-half sub Orr Barouch did cut into the Whitecaps' lead in the 80th minute. Nyarko had the deep send to Barouch, who muscled his way past Harvey and shot toward the far left post to cut it to 4-2.
The Fire face Eastern Conference foes the New York Red Bulls on Saturday at Red Bull Arena. With Chicago's next three matches coming against fellow East teams, the club is not losing hope just yet.
"The team is pretty upset, but we're not going to give up," Segares said. "We're going to come back this week again because there is a mathematical opportunity [for the playoffs]. We've taken pride in our work since the preseason. You can't throw that out."
Analysis: The Fire have had plenty of low points this year, but posting an embarrassing match against MLS's worst team probably takes the cake. The Fire also extended their winless streak to eight games and have not posted a victory since June 12 at the Columbus Crew.
Cuesta returned from his one-game suspension, and suffice to say he had an incredibly disappointing effort. Johnson bailed him out late in the first half shortly after Cuesta fouled Camilo in the box. Hassli took the penalty kick, but Johnson guessed correctly to his right and batted the ball away.
It was surprising that Cuesta stayed in for the remainder of the match. Jalil Anibaba had a good game at center back during the Fire's 1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union, and the back line needed a jolt Sunday. Hassli's second goal was the defining moment for the Fire's poor work rate, because four Vancouver players were in the box fighting for the ball in that sequence. Chicago's defense was dormant.
The mathematical outside chance of a postseason exists for the time being, but Sunday's lackluster effort basically was the final straw as the Fire likely will miss out on the playoffs for a second straight year.
All the Fire can do from here on out is play for pride in their MLS schedule and make a valiant run toward winning a fifth Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.