Nelson Rodriguez: A Defining Moment for the Chicago Fire

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EDITORIAL – It’s been a number of years since any soccer hardware has been lifted in the Windy City. The Chicago Fire, who were founded on the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire on October 8, 1997, spent much of their first nine seasons winning trophies. With a MLS Cup in their inaugural season of 1998, as well as Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophies in 1998, 2000, 2003, and 2006, the Fire knew how to win.

Of course, it didn’t hurt having the coaches and players associated with the club they did at that time. Former USMNT coach and American soccer icon Bob Bradley was their inaugural manager. Former Barcelona great Hristo Stoichkov stood alongside Polish international Piotr Nowak as they led a fledgling club to the coveted Double in their first campaign. Chicago’s favorite son, Frank Klopas, finished his playing career with the Fire, then returned later for stints as Technical Director, as well as Head Coach.

To say Chicago was a force in MLS during that time is a given; the club reached the playoffs in 12 of their first 13 seasons. To say otherwise is to be out of touch with MLS history.

2010: A new era begins

Much of that changed around 2010. The club had come within penalty kicks of the MLS Cup in 2009, falling in the Eastern Conference Final to Real Salt Lake on their home pitch of Toyota Park (situated in Bridgeview, a little over 10 miles southwest of downtown Chicago). Denis Hamlett, who had led the Fire to consecutive MLS Eastern Conference Championships, as well as the now-defunct Superliga Final in 2009, was relieved of his duties. Andell Holdings, the Fire’s ownership group that bought the club from AEG in 2007, wanted more from their head coach.

Or so it seemed.

In the wake of that dismissal, the Fire brought in Mexican coach Carlos De Los Cobos to succeed Hamlett. De Los Cobos had experience coaching big clubs in Mexico like Queretaro and Club America, and had just finished a four-year stint as the head coach of El Salvador’s national team. That experience was hard-pressed to serve him well in MLS or Chicago, and the beginning of a new, much different era dawned in Bridgeview, one that the Fire are still in the midst of.

If you ask supporters, they will tell you that slowly since 2010 the identity of the Chicago Fire has smoldered. “Tradition, Honor, Passion,” a mantra of the club since its inception into the league, feels to some like little more than an empty catchphrase. Perceived ownership disconnect, and chiding editorials aimed at supporter discontent seem like the norm for many, whether or not that’s the case. On the field, the Fire has exited each season with little more than a whimper — the one exception being their playoff berth in 2012, a play-in game against the Houston Dynamo that saw the eventual MLS Cup runner’s up best the Fire on their home pitch, further adding to the frustrations surrounding the club.

It’s not that Chicago isn’t trying, however. In 2007, with the introduction of the Designated Player rule to MLS (designed to help clubs bring in internationally recognized names, while limiting the hit clubs take to their salary cap), Chicago introduced Mexican international Cuauhtemoc Blanco in a ceremony before 5000 supporters, one that would put Didier Drogba’s introduction in Montreal to shame. The Fire have utilized the Designated Player rule more often in recent years as well, however never with the success that Blanco’s introduction to the Men in Red brought. Indeed, some have said it’s not Andell’s ability to spend money that’s been the issue; the issue has been the value gained for the money spent. Since 2010, DP-level players, as well as lower salaried “name” players brought in to make a difference on the Fire’s roster have ended up shipped off to other clubs, or in some cases, loaned out for the duration of their contract terms, for a variety of reasons.

While that is something supporters are hopeful will change with the introduction of new General Manager Nelson Rodriguez, it’s not his first priority as Chicago heads into the off-season. The first task charged to Rodriguez is finding a new skipper for a team that finished 2015 with the worst record in club history at 8–20–6 (also bad enough for the infamous wooden spoon in MLS this season), most of which came with former head coach Frank Yallop at the helm.

The Yallop Era

Yallop had his fair share of success when he came to Chicago at the end of 2013. He won the MLS Cup twice with San Jose Earthquakes in 2001 and 2003. He was Coach of the Year twice as well, in 2001 and 2012, the latter of which he also led San Jose, during his second stint coaching the club, to the Supporters’ Shield. None of that success ever translated in Chicago, however. Yallop compiled a record of 13 wins, 26 losses, and 24 draws in his time leading the Fire, by far the worst record for any coach in the Fire’s history.

In what seemed like peculiar timing, the Fire cut Yallop loose on September 20, 2015. That same day they announced the hiring of Rodriguez, which signified a shift in thinking for how Chicago would operate on the soccer side of things. When Frank Yallop was hired by owner Andrew Hauptman on October 31, 2013, he was given the title of Head Coach and Director of Soccer. That role essentially gave him control of all soccer related decisions. That’s one thing Rodriguez looks to change at the beginning of his tenure in Chicago as General Manger.

“I don’t believe the head coach should be the czar of soccer,” Rodriguez told reporters before the season finale at Toyota Park against the New York Red Bulls. “I think the demands on a head coach are so great in Major League Soccer today, that (the head coach’s) focus has to be three points on the weekend, and that’s it. They can contribute or lend a voice in other areas, but they’ve got to be dedicated to getting that core group in the locker room right.”

Turning the page?

That shift in thinking may be a welcome sight in Chicago. Perhaps one of the issues plaguing the Fire in recent years has been an inconsistent structure of soccer hierarchy. Chicago has not had a General Manager in place since Peter Wilt’s departure 10 years ago, in 2005. During that time however, they’ve had two different Technical Directors, albeit for erratic time periods in the club’s history. Frank Klopas served as Technical Director from 2008–2011, while Brian Bliss, interim head coach and current Technical Director, has been in place since 2013.

When the season starts in 2016 (and presuming Brian Bliss retains his role as Technical Director and not permanent head coach), the Chicago Fire will have both a General Manager and Technical Director in place. This will be the first time in club history both positions have been occupied simultaneously. Rodriguez and Bliss will both be charged with making the bulk of decisions directly impacting the product on the field.

The effect Brian Bliss has had in Chicago when it comes to player personnel has been one of the bright spots of the past few seasons. Bliss is the same person who, while serving as Technical Director for the Columbus Crew, brought in players like Federico Higuain, Tony Tchani, and Jairo Arrieta, all of whom had an immediate impact for the Crew. In Chicago, he was instrumental in bringing in Ghanaian international winger David Accam, who led the Fire in goals during the 2015 season. He also drafted Matt Polster in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, a player who would go on to have a rookie season almost good enough for Rookie of the Year, were it not for the goal-scoring prowess of Orlando’s Cyle Larin.

Nelson Rodriguez has spent numerous years working for Major League Soccer and more recently, U.S. Soccer, and has become a well respected name as it relates to the game in North America. It’s possible that respect is already paying dividends, by way of the interest garnered for the existing coaching vacancy in Chicago. “The solicitations that we have received from people interested in this position is nearly overwhelming,” Nelson said. “The international standard and caliber of candidates that have expressed interest has surprised me. It speaks to how Chicago Fire is actually seen worldwide as a desirable destination for the best.”

Those candidates have been a veritable “who’s who” of MLS-caliber talent. Reports surfaced soon after Chicago’s season ended that former New York Red Bulls’ coach Mike Petke was interviewed for the job. Rumors swirled that former El Tri head coach Miguel Herrera was also being courted, although they were short lived. In more recent weeks, Jason Kreis’ name has come up after his departure from New York City FC. Tab Ramos was also thought to be a frontrunner for the position.

Even if he is offered the position, Ramos seems more inclined to stay with U.S. Soccer’s U-20 team. This has given way to sources reporting that former Columbus Crew playmaker and current Lanus manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto will soon interview for the job, and may accept the position, as he desires a move to MLS as a coach. Schelotto is reportedly heading to the U.S. from Argentina this week to interview for the job. As the man in charge when Lanus won the 2013 Copa Sudamericana in Argentina, he could be the answer Chicago has looked for; the coach that can turn their current trend around and bring a winning mentality back to Chicago.

With Rodriguez and Bliss spearheading soccer operations, the introduction of the right head coach could be a turning point for the Chicago Fire. The wrong choice could cause Chicago to maintain the free fall the club has been in since early 2010. With Chicago sitting as the third largest market in MLS behind New York and Los Angeles, coupled with coming off the worst season in club history and some of the most vocal supporter displeasure the club has seen in years, this could indeed be a moment that defines Chicago for years to come.

Choose wisely, Mr. Rodriguez.

Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images