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The first hammer to fall in the Chicago Fire’s lackluster 2021 season came down late Wednesday with the firing of coach Raphael Wicky.
A source confirmed the Fire made the move after the team defeated New York City FC 2-0 in a one-match return to SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview. Assistant coach Frank Klopas is expected to fill in as the interim coach for the rest of the season.
Wicky, 44, went 12-25-14 overall, going 5-10-8 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 7-15-6 this year. The Fire sit 12 points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with six matches remaining.
The Fire got off to their worst-ever start in 2021, scoring just four goals in nine matches and going 1-7-1 — earning just four points from a possible 27.
Wicky said he understood the frustration fans feel because of the lack of success. The Fire missed an expanded — and generous — playoff field last season and seem a long shot of reaching the postseason this year, continuing a fruitless run that has seen the club not win a trophy in 15 years.
“I know how this works,” the Swiss native said in June. “I played 15 years and I’ve been a coach a long time, so I know how it works. We don’t have results. I don’t have arguments. I am responsible for this, so there is not much I can say to that. I just say thanks to the fans who always come to the game, who came to Columbus, and who come here supporting the team. But it’s not about me. It’s about the team.”
Though Wicky’s tenure had its faults — the Fire were 1-24-4 when conceding the game’s first goal, won only one true road game and frequently displayed an inability to correct and prevent miscues — it is debatable if he was given a fair chance to succeed with the roster constructed by sporting director Georg Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer.
When Wicky was hired in December 2019, the Fire were well short of having a full squad less than a month before the start of preseason training. In the frantic rush to sign players by the March 1, 2020, season opener, the front office made several additions, some of which were costly and caused salary-cap constraints.
After the 2020 season, the Fire decided to part ways with veterans and key contributors such as forward C.J. Sapong and homegrown midfielder Djordje Mihailovic. They made just four additions, only three of which were eligible to play in 2021, but had the seventh-highest payroll in the league, according to salary data released by the MLS Players Association.
Regardless, there already were questions about Wicky’s future heading into the season. His original two-year deal with the Fire included a team option for 2022.
When he was asked in March if he was concerned about his contract, Wicky said it comes with the territory of being a coach.
“You cannot control everything,” he said at the time. “You cannot always control the outcome of games and the result. I know that there is pressure for results everywhere I am. That was (the case) in Basel. That’s the way that it’s here. One day (if) I have another job somewhere else, that’s going to be the same.
“But that’s something as a coach you cannot think of all the time, because otherwise you will not sleep much… I’m just trying to do the best I can and be myself with the team and work on these things, and then we see what comes. But the pressure is always there.”
But with the team likely missing the postseason once again, that choice was made.
Wicky is the second coach to be fired since Chairman Joe Mansueto took over as majority owner in September 2019. Veljko Paunovic was let go that November after going 41-58-37 in four seasons with the club, qualifying for the playoffs just once.