Chicago Fire's tumultuous offseason draws parallels to Red Bulls' 2015
There is an MLS team that has been serially underperforming in recent years, and now it is on thin ice with its proud and organized fan base. A new sporting director comes in, a league insider steeped in the competitive nuances of the league's complex rules and regulations. In short order, he makes a personnel decision that strains that fan relationship further by moving on a figure whose symbolic connection to those in the bleachers was arguably as important as his technical merits. A new head coach arrives, preaching an uptempo philosophy, allied to an emphasis on "the right type of person" being more of a priority than a marketable designated player who doesn't match the team's values.
To Red Bulls fans, the above might sound familiar, but it's actually in reference to this year's Chicago Fire.
We know what happened next for the Red Bulls after the above scenario unfolded in the 2014-15 offseason: The chip on their collective shoulders turned into a Supporters' Shield and an Eastern Conference final. Sporting Director Ali Curtis' moneyball-ing paid off, manager Jesse Marsch's high-pressing team of workers swept most, if not all, before them, and by the end of the season, the infamously bad-tempered town hall meeting with fans that had started the year could even be remembered as humorous by all parties.
And Chicago? It's a little more complicated. It was an obvious risk for the Red Bulls to fire fan favorite Mike Petke after two seasons in which he won the club's first trophy and took them to within a goal of MLS Cup, and it was a decision that gave the Curtis-Marsch axis a very fine margin for error.
Chicago, on the other hand, had delivered their own mandate for change with their performances on and off the field in recent seasons. Serial designated player disappointments and uninspiring coaching regimes were only part of the story as the team recorded their two worst seasons in 2014 and 2015. When Harry Shipp, Chicago's homegrown face of the team, was traded to Montreal this offseason, some of the regret he noted in his farewell letter was that that failure would now be his local legacy.
Nonetheless, trading a player who had grown up watching the side, had come through the academy and looked to finally be on the verge of being given the keys to the car in the center of the park under the new regime was a difficult call to make for new sporting director Nelson Rodriguez.
"I knew it might be unpopular," he told ESPN FC. "I also know and accept that every time Harry does well or scores a goal for Montreal that we'll be criticized more for 'giving him away.'"
When some of the analogies with the Red Bulls' scenario are brought up, Rodriguez notes his friendship with and admiration of Curtis, which dates back to their time working together in the league offices. Rodriguez admitted that there have been times since his arrival at the Fire when he has thought of his own advice to Curtis last season.
"I spoke to Ali a bit last year when he was going through his difficult moments: the coaching decision and the town hall meeting. And I've reflected on those conversations for myself and tried to heed whatever words I might have said to him for myself, in particular around the decision to move Harry," he said. "I've said this already, but it bears repeating: We believe that Harry is a very good player and will have a very good career. It's always difficult for fans to understand how we can say that, yet ... ultimately we felt that the move was in our best interest, and the club has to come first."
What informs Rodriguez's reading of the Fire's best interest? It's an approach he is happy to characterize as "back to basics." Daily technique drills are part of the new regime, in line with Rodriguez's belief that, "If you can make the ball do what you want, then the game is far, far easier. It's when you struggle with precision that this idea of tactics becomes more important ... [Lionel] Messi, for example, shreds tactics with his own special gift and his ability as a player."
Rodriguez and new head coach Veljko Paunovic, who led Serbia to the Under-20 World Cup last year, are in agreement that what is best for the team is as much a question of character as technical merit. It stems from Rodriguez's impression of the malaise that seemed to have settled over the Fire in recent years. When asked to characterize his perception of the club when watching them last year, he notes a few occasions when the team was just unlucky but also that at times, "I would have said they could have been better served by more order within the group."
That order starts with the impassioned coach, whom Rodriguez identified after a thorough vetting of several international applicants. Tellingly, when asked why he picked Paunovic from that field, Rodriguez noted a cultural match as much as a technical one.
"I kept coming back to Pauno because I felt that he, individually, is a melting pot of experiences, and he's coming to a league that is also a melting pot of different cultures and different players and different conditions within the league," he said.
The pair seem to complement each other well, though that should be no surprise to those who know Rodriguez. He has generally been a popular figure in his time with the league for his collaborative abilities and attention to the morale of those working under and around him.
With such emphasis on technique and changing the culture, it makes you wonder how much consideration was given to the wider impact on local morale of Shipp's departure, beyond the technical side, especially in a project that right now needs not just players but fans and media to accept a lot on faith.
"I wish I was smart enough to think that way, but alas, I'm not," Rodriguez said. "Certainly, things are easier when it's positively reviewed. When the media or fans react in a positive way, it serves as fuel for the team and everybody in the organization. Look, we anticipated that the reaction would be more generally negative than positive, and you try to prep some people around you for that, and you do the best that you can. In the end, we understand that the public and the media, in today's society, there's less patience. It's about immediacy: immediate reactions, immediate evaluations."
Not that Rodriguez is discouraged by the current fan skepticism: "I think the worst thing that could happen would be apathy. Chicago is a fantastic sports town, and Chicago fans are incredibly loyal."
"The very last game of our regular season last year was the first game I attended in person in my new role. And we were down to Red Bulls 2-0 in the midst of a miserable season, and the fans were still supportive of the team and urging the team on. And when we got the goal back, you could see the Red Bulls wobble a little bit. And they were playing for the Supporters' Shield, and you could see nerves kicking in against the worst team in the league, and I credit that moment entirely to our fans. And it's moments like that that excite and enthuse me to believe that if we can get it right, it's going to be special."
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, Grantland, The Guardian US and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.