After a transformative offseason, Chicago Fire fans are left once again wondering if they should trust the club’s new structure. And this time, the organization will have to earn it.
With the 2020 MLS season closing in on the Chicago Fire, so too does their window of opportunity to clean up their mess. After a decade of disappointment, there are new winds in Chicago. Some bring the promise of hope and optimism, while others carry whispers of doubt and unease.
There is really no way of knowing where the club will be even in a couple of months’ time, but it’s worth parsing out the good and the bad of the club’s current situation.
The first and biggest change for the Chicago Fire was the overhaul in management conducted in September 2019 when Joe Mansueto completed his purchase of the club from Andrew Hauptman. Along with his arrival was the promise of a move back to Soldier Field for the 2020 season. Later in November, head coach Veljko Paunovic was fired, and in December, Nelson Rodriguez’s role as General Manager was taken over by Georg Heitz. After that, Raphael Wicky was hired as the new coach and the transition to the new regime seemed complete.
With this transition, there are so many unknowns, but the track record of the hires, as well as the commitment of the new owner, seem to put the Chicago Fire in prime position to bounce back from the previous failures. Mansueto has been repeatedly quoted regarding his plans for the club, something that fans were sorely missing under Hauptman, and with Heitz, Wicky, and new Technical Director Sebastian Pelzer in place, the Fire bring in some major players in Swiss soccer. While Wicky himself doesn’t have much attached to his name, Heitz and Pelzer have shown an ability to identify some of the best talent in the world while at FC Basel.
But Chicago Fire fans have seen this before. They have seen it as recently as 2016 when Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic were hired in the first place. There was optimism that they would bring some sort of dignity to the club, but instead, the only positive was a single flash in the pan season in 2017.
In Wicky’s arrival, there is an eerie similarity to Paunovic’s. Both come from a youth soccer coaching background and while Wicky does have some experience in club soccer with coaching FC Basel in the 2017-18 season, it was only a single season and saw Basel not winning the championship for the first time in eight years. Their senior experience is limited, their coaching qualities relatively unknown, and their place in the pecking order at the club along way behind the personnel men.
Recently, Wicky’s Chicago Fire played for the first time in the preseason. That game, a 4-2 loss to the Colorado Rapids, raised an uncomfortable amount of questions about the team going into the season. While the preseason is not meant to be an example of how the team will play during the regular season, it does hint at the tactics that the club is working on and planning to use during the season. And the tactical makeup of the team that went out on the pitch on Saturday was distressing.
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Defensively, the Chicago Fire seemed unable to press and close down effectively, sitting back and allowing Colorado to attack. This would be fine if there was a plan to counter-attack, but it seemed as though once the Fire had the ball they couldn’t figure out what to do with it. New lauded signing Alvaro Medran was largely invisible as the midfield was unable to string passes together and connect the defense with the attack, and when the ball made it up to the final third, CJ Sapong did what he could but was isolated and starved of service.
As stated earlier, the preseason is not a definitive indication of how the regular season will play out. As an example, the 2008 0-16 Detroit Lions were undefeated in the preseason while the 2007 16-0 New England Patriots only went .500 in the preseason. The preseason doesn’t matter and the Chicago Fire haven’t even put their entire squad together yet. New DP striker Robert Beric didn’t even see the pitch in this game and even newer right-back Boris Sekulic was only announced hours before the game. This doesn’t even cover all of the unconfirmed signing reports floating around. There is a long way to go.
But the signs on the pitch were concerning and with so much work still to do to build a competitive roster and so little time with which to do it, there is a decreasing amount of trust among onlookers. The Chicago Fire faithful have been fooled before in the past, and no matter how much the club changes, there is still an inherent distrust in their work. While Heitz has taken over the on-the-field side of the club, the man who is the complete opposite of a fan-favorite and is largely responsible for the recent disasters, Rodriguez, still seems to be deeply involved. After Mansueto’s words of commitment to fans, supporters still found themselves in conflict with the front office this offseason. And it wouldn’t be right to completely gloss over a rebrand that many fans see as a betrayal to the club’s history.
So can Chicago Fire fans trust the new boss? It is still too early to say. But the inherent trust that was afforded the organization in the past is no longer present. The Fire must earn it.