Chicago Fire: Here is how to ‘fix’ the Fire

Nelson Rodriguez, general manager of US soccer club Chicago Fire, speaks during a press conference where German soccer player Bastian Schweinsteiger (not pictured) was introduced, in Chicago, Illinois, USA, 29 March 2017. Schweinsteiger has transferred to Chicago Fire from Manchester United. Photo: Ting Shen/dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Ting Shen/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Nelson Rodriguez, general manager of US soccer club Chicago Fire, speaks during a press conference where German soccer player Bastian Schweinsteiger (not pictured) was introduced, in Chicago, Illinois, USA, 29 March 2017. Schweinsteiger has transferred to Chicago Fire from Manchester United. Photo: Ting Shen/dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Ting Shen/picture alliance via Getty Images) /

The Chicago Fire are in a cyclical mess with everyone spouting think pieces on how to ‘fix’ the club. Well, here is how to ‘fix’ the Fire.

Last week after watching the Chicago Fire lose 2-0 to Atlanta United, I lost my writing voice. It wasn’t disbelief, it wasn’t shock. It felt like an inevitability. The team continued to make the same mistakes over and over again and I just couldn’t find anything to write about. I was numb. Then another punch pulled me out of it. A 2-1 loss to St Louis FC, a team that had previously been the Fire’s ‘partner club’. Clearly, something is very wrong for the club to be outclassed by a USL team while playing on a football field where the lacrosse lines were more prominent than the soccer lines.

The Chicago Fire, according to most, needs ‘fixing’. But their problems run much deeper than that.

We have seen so many cycles out of the Chicago Fire, on a micro and a macro level. This season on the micro level, we’ve seen coach Veljko Paunovic consistently walk out a team that cannot win. Sometimes he finds a team that can and immediately tosses it aside for some much worse option.

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One of the major arguments to be used in his favor is that he’s a ‘tournament coach’. Well, he’s been given the chance to play in five tournaments, four U.S. Open Cups and a single MLS Cup Playoffs, which can be classified as a tournament. He is 5-5-2 in tournament play (the ties are games that went to penalties). That’s not very inspiring. It is even more concerning when you consider that he was knocked out by USL opponents twice in that time, first by FC Cincinnati in 2017 and most recently by St Louis FC. Looking even closer, many of their games against USL teams have been surprisingly close. In 2016, they went to penalties against Indy Eleven at home, and the following year, they scraped by on a 1-0 victory in St. Louis. Clearly, Paunovic’s game-to-game planning isn’t very effective. As Modest Mouse puts it: ‘How can someone inconsistent mess up so consistently?’

It’s because Paunovic is caught in a system that allows this.

You see, on the macro level of this cyclical issue is the cycle of management. Dennis Hamlett was fired in 2009 for losing in the Eastern Conference Finals on penalties. It was deemed not good enough and the team hired Carlos de los Cobos the next season. He failed to make the playoffs and was gone mid-season in 2011. Frank Klopas came in and turned the Fire into a playoff team, but then missed the playoffs in 2013 due to goal difference. He was fired for that and in came Frank Yallop who brought in his own signings and did pretty much nothing for a year and a half.

Then, in 2015, new general manager Nelson Rodriguez shows up saying he will do everything differently. He hired Paunovic and instantly went to work trading away almost everyone. Somehow, after gutting the squad, a playoff team was created in 2017. Then Nelson traded everyone again. There has been no consistency on the pitch in such a long time and this is a problem.

That problem comes from the top. Almost every single Chicago Fire hire in the past couple of decades has been done on the basis of trusting individuals who do not understand the sport, from the presidents to the coaches. After talking about how cyclical this firing wheel has been, breaking the wheel is less about being patient and more about starting over entirely and bringing in someone who actually can last.

The first step, then, is cutting off the person at the top, the one has overseen this complete and absolute collapse of a beautiful dynasty: Andrew Hauptman. I don’t blame him in quite the same way that I used to anymore. He was seen as the root of all evil. After talking to some people, I’ve discovered that his issue is not intentional; he is not trying to make the team bad, he is just failing to find the right people. And it’s completely understandable, you don’t actively try to make your team worse, right? The problem is that he is consistently bad at hiring the right people to entrust the team to. When you find that you just have really bad luck at the poker table, it’s time to cash out. Hauptman needs to sell.

This is no longer a supporters’ fantasy. This is a realistic proposition. There are rumors that there is a trigger in Joe Mansueto’s purchase of 49% of the club that can hand the other 51% over to him in an instant. The trouble is that he hasn’t done it yet. And I can’t tell when he will. Reports say that he’s been doing a lot of other things for the club, but he’s yet to push the button on the nuclear option. But Hauptman isn’t the only one who needs to go.

Nelson Rodriguez came to the Fire among fanfare that he would help finally bring much-needed change for the club. I cannot disagree with the assessment that he has brought change to the club. Whether it is necessary or not, however, I would question. More harm than help. He has traded away anyone who was at the club prior to his arrival, including promising academy players and Chicago-born players. He has attempted to sell the Fire’s Academy after chasing away a Fire legend, Gonzalo Segares. He has even banned the club’s most loyal fans after framing them for issues that were not their own making.

This may be a little strong, but Nelson Rodriguez has shown to be the embodiment of soccer evil. Yet, somehow, after all of his failures and acts of stupidity, he is still at the club. And he even has new suggestions for how to ‘fix’ the club. Let’s address them here.

The Chicago Fire is a beautiful name. In 1871, The Great Chicago Fire devastated the city. Naming the team after the Fire itself was not the goal. The intent was to name it after the rebuild in the aftermath of the Fire. Out of the ashes, the true metropolis that became the current City of Chicago rose back up. City planning was improved, architecture blossomed, the Chicago Public Library System was created, and the people of Chicago came together and defined themselves as a city that rose from the ashes. They even put a star on their flag for it! That is what the Chicago Fire name is about. Wouldn’t it be absolutely wonderful to see a similar mentality from management: A team that has been the worst in the league so long reborn into a powerhouse once again. A phoenix rising from the ashes.

(Photo by Brian Kersey/MLS via Getty Images)
(Photo by Brian Kersey/MLS via Getty Images) /

Well, Nelson Rodriguez wants to change the name. He says it’s bad for search engine optimization (SEO) and that the TV show of the same name appears more often than the soccer team. I feel like it’s the club’s fault for allowing a TV Show created in 2012 to use the same name as the soccer team. There was a lawsuit just waiting there that ownership could’ve taken, but the show was allowed to live and now is being used as an argument to abandon tradition. It’s dumb. Just absolutely dumb. Arguments that people confuse the badge for the actual Fire department is dumb. That was the point of the badge, to honor the Fire department, and it gave the Fire an incredibly distinct look against the backdrop of a lot of really dumb 90s logos that almost all have since been rebranded. If you want the Chicago to take notice, win. That’s all you really need to do. That’s what the Blackhawks did. In 2006-07, the Hawks averaged less than 13,000 in attendance at the United Center. The Fire averaged 14,000 in 2006 and 17,000 in 2007, both times at Toyota Park.

But nobody wants to go to Toyota Park. That’s why the Fire have broken the lease with Bridgeview for the ‘soccer-specific stadium’ and now expect to fill Soldier Field next season (unofficially, this is according to reports). With the team’s current attendance average, they fill up about 53% of Toyota Park at 10,602 per game. In Soldier Field, that would be around 17% capacity. There would be an echo in the stadium. It would feel like a high school game. But maybe a few thousand show up to the games because it’s easier to get to Soldier Field than it is to get to SeatGeek Stadium (Toyota Park’s current name). Maybe the Fire sign a big-name player. Let’s give them a favorable extra 10,000 fans. That puts an average match attendance at 23,000, 37% of the Soldier Field capacity. Not quite as pathetic, but still fairly pitiful.

And here is the real rub: everyone has a think-piece on how to ‘fix’ the Chicago Fire. But the problems with the Fire run much deeper and aren’t fixed so easily. Sure, a move downtown would be nice, but simply doing that will not help make the product on the pitch any better or any more worthy of a 61,500 capacity stadium. There are issues with facilities. The Fire’s training facilities are almost non-existent. A weight room, a practice pitch out in the parking lot. That’s it. The team needs to catch up with the rest of the league on that front.

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There are so many things being said about what the Fire need to do and it just feels like they all miss the point. The point is that the Chicago Fire allowed themselves to become irrelevant in their own city, they allowed themselves to stagnate and refused to grow alongside the rest of MLS. They refuse to create a USL team to develop players. They struggle to find a foothold in the city because they’re looking at the wrong markets. They’ve done some pretty great things in terms of charitable giving, but they treat it like on-field success. Both can be and should be achieved, but when you place those awards up alongside U.S. Open Cups, there is an issue of priority. First priority is creating a good team on the pitch. Second priority is connecting with the city and the community, which is inherently aided by success on the pitch. And ‘the community’ also includes those who are already involved with the club, those who are already fans, even those who have played for the team.

Everyone at the club is frustrated, from the supporters to the players. It’s been boiling over and something needs to be done. But it won’t. As mentioned, Mansueto hasn’t pressed the nuclear button and, from what I hear, nobody’s job is actually on the line right now. Even after all of this, after everything that has been said, there is no accountability. The Chicago Fire cannot cure themselves because they see symptoms as the disease. They see an empty stadium and blame the stadium. They see their own fading brand and blame the name. They blame everyone but themselves. They say they take responsibility, but maybe the most responsible thing to do at this point is for people to start stepping down. If Veljko Paunovic won’t be fired, he should step down in acknowledgement of his shortcomings. If Nelson Rodriguez can’t be fired, he should step down in recognition that the people of Chicago just don’t want him anymore. If Andrew Hauptman can’t be pushed out, he should complete the sale on his own as a show of good faith that he never really wanted to destroy the club.

But accountability isn’t real and the cycle will continue.

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I will give the last word to the Chicago Tribune who, after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, wrote this: ‘Cheer up! In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that. Chicago will rise again.’