MLS Focus: Chicago Fire clings to its beliefs but for how long?

At this time in 2017, the Chicago Fire was the hottest team in MLS, in the middle of what would extend to a 11-game unbeaten streak.

The Fire later cooled off but still finished with 55 points, third best in MLS, and made the playoffs for the first time in five years.

This year has been a struggle: a 3-6-2 record after 11 games, in eighth place and already six points below the red line.

For the third year of a three-year plan, things don't look too hot in Bridgeview.

“I feel the responsibility to deliver a winner and deliver joy," Chicago Fire president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez admitted in a roundtable with local and national media this week.

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Injuries. The Fire has been crippled by injuries this year. Indeed, they go back to last fall when they lost Dutch playmaker Michael De Leeuw in September and then 18-year-old midfielder Djordje Mihailovic in the home loss to the New York Red Bulls in the Knockout Round. Both players are still out with serious knee injuries.

In the 2018 opener, Matt Polster -- good enough to earn his first U.S. cap in January -- was lost with a knee injury, and recently Dax McCarty -- whose acquisition from the Red Bulls was one of the keys to rebuilding the Fire midfield -- went out with a hamstring injury.

Quiet offseason. But after rebuilding the team with a series of shrewd moves between 2016 and 2017, the second year of the tandem of Veljko Paunovic as head coach and Rodriguez as GM -- he took on the president's title in January -- the Fire has been relatively quiet on the player market this year though Rodriguez emphasized it is not over.

The big signing -- Serbian Aleksandar Katai -- has only two goals and one assist in 10 games and is still adjusting to MLS. The rash of injuries has forced Paunovic to give four rookies a combined 22 starts in 11 games, an unheard-of number these days for an MLS team.

Far off on valuations. Rodriguez says he can't make deals when they don't make sense.

“I think that the need to be honest and self-reflective is important,” he said. “If I look back at the deals we didn’t get, I don’t even know what it might’ve taken to get those deals done. We were so far away in our valuations, were so far away that I didn’t even see a bridge. Within the league, I think we made compelling offers."

The latter reference is likely to Lee Nguyen, whom New England eventually moved out of the Eastern Conference to LAFC.

Lots of inflation. The MLS market is changing with the introduction of discretionary TAM.

“You’re looking at the guy who is responsible,"  Rodriguez said. "If I don’t think the fit is right or I don’t think the value is right, then we’re not doing it. We respect that every team has to pursue their way, do things in their way. I think there’s been a lot of inflation in the market. I think average players are getting a lot in transfers and salaries, and again, I believe that by and large, the process that we’ve adopted, the process that we used so far has yielded really good results for us."

But for how long can Rodriguez, who had a long tenure at the league office and understands the magnitude of the changes as well as just about anyone, be patient with the Fire process?

“I have to recognize that if everybody is operating in a different realm and world, then at some point I need to adjust because we can’t just cling to our beliefs and be an outlier," he added. "But I still believe we’re going to get the right person and the right players for us in a way that makes sense.”

Sounders' example. Rodriguez also believes there is time to get back in the playoff race, pointing to Seattle's late-season recovery in 2016 that ended with an MLS Cup title. The Fire has lost its last two games, but Rodriguez points to three earlier games as a sign of what's possible.

"A month ago," he said, "we beat the best home team [the New York Red Bulls] on their turf [2-1], tied the MLS Cup champion [Toronto FC, 2-2], lost to the No. 1 team in the league [Atlanta, 2-1] in a really good game at home. At some point, we’re going to get this all together, perhaps with new incorporations.”

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Three seasons. Rodriguez said he breaks the season down into three -- three segments of 11 games -- hoping to get 16 points in each of them and then going for a win in the 34th game to get over his magic target of 50 points. Given the spate of injuries, he says the 11 points in the first third aren't too bad.

But how much of a setback would it be for the Fire to miss out on the playoffs in 2018?

"Wouldn't be good," Rodriguez said. "It would allow more doubters to creep in, more people to be suspect about what we do."

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2 comments about "MLS Focus: Chicago Fire clings to its beliefs but for how long?".
  1. R2 Dad, May 25, 2018 at 2:31 p.m.

    How is it that making the playoffs, the equivalent of Wenger/Aresnal's 4th place trophy, has been seen to be the marker of a sucessful season? Unfortunately, there are winners (cup, shield) and losers.

    Also, adults playing on plastic fields is a recipe for disaster/injuries, which is why top professionals (male and female) see it beneath the sport to play on artificial turf. Eventually, these teams in inhospitable climates will need to plant grass, and schedule away matches until the weather allows home games.  Many will disagree, but I'm curious what Ibra & Rooney would say on the matter since since they are new to MLS.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, May 26, 2018 at 10:05 p.m.

    Take into account that professional sports teams are in the entertainment business. Making money is more important than winning matches although the two are related.

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