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As Chicago Fire seek more relevance, GM Nelson Rodriguez says ‘something has to change’

The Chicago Fire have been hearing from focus groups about a potential re-branding.

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Wednesday was a big news day for the Chicago Fire.

The day started with a report the Fire got a step closer to moving out of Bridgeview and back to Soldier Field. Then, general manager and team president Nelson Rodriguez addressed reporters for over an hour at a pre-scheduled Q&A session, with that topic being the focus. After that, the Fire picked up a completely dominant 5-0 win against the New England Revolution, which led to the Revolution firing Brad Friedel.

As a result, a lot of what Rodriguez said could easily get lost in the shuffle, so here’s a breakdown of some of the most notable topics.

State of the 2019 team

The Fire are in the midst of another mediocre start to a season. With all the talk of playing in a different stadium, Rodriguez said nothing is more important than winning when it comes to drawing fan interest.

Wednesday’s win against New England was likely the team’s best performance. It also came against one of the worst teams in the league.

Even after that win, the Fire sit outside of a playoff spot. After going 2-1-2 at home in March and April (against just one team currently in a playoff spot), the Fire got one point from a three-game road trip. The Fire lost to New York City FC and Montreal before getting an encouraging scoreless draw at Los Angeles FC.

“Every time we seem to take a step forward, the following game we either tie or lose,” Rodriguez said. “We haven’t been able to build momentum or build confidence. I don’t want to take anything away from our opponents on the three-game road trip, but in the first two games I felt we lost those games more than we were beaten. We have to correct those little errors.”

Rodriguez said he is unsatisfied with the team’s record, but remains confident in the group.

“Over 34 games, I’ll be proven right or I’ll be proven wrong,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s inside of 10 games.”

In the grand scheme of things, it’s far too early to be concerned about the standings. However, the Fire are already seven points behind D.C., Philadelphia and Montreal at the top of the conference. This brings to mind what the goal is for the Fire. Is the team looking to sneak into a playoff spot only to go on the road against a superior team and exit in one game?

The standings don’t look pretty and the performances have been erratic. However, the Fire’s roster looks like it could achieve some level of success.

“We have a deeper roster,” Rodriguez said. “We have more variety. I like us. Now, time will tell and we’ll see how it all goes, but I do think we’re a playoff team and I think we’re a damn good team.”

Rebrand

The status of a potential Fire rebrand has coincided with the stadium move, although the rebrand seems more uncertain.

Rodriguez wouldn’t take anything off the table, whether that be a name change, a new badge or smaller, more subtle alterations.

“We’ve continued on that process,” Rodriguez said. “We’re working with Major League Soccer and their brand and marketing development. We held some focus groups to get some input from fans and different segments of our fans. We’ve held some focus groups with just general Chicago sports fans, not even necessarily soccer fans or fans of the Fire. We haven’t made any decision, relative to, I don’t even know that there will be a name change, but a name change or colors.

He added that they need to “accelerate that process” and do more research before making a decision.

While that may not induce a heart attack to long-time Fire fans who have grown attached to the name and look of the team, Rodriguez did say “something has to change.”

“The badge can’t stay the exact same,” he said. “Even if it’s something subtle or simple, we have to distinguish ourselves as a sporting club and not be confused with just the TV show or a local fire department.”

When pressed on the club being confused with a seven-year-old TV show, Rodriguez admitted that is on the club.

“I think we have lost relevance,” he said. “Not winning hurts us in that regard.”

Roster flexibility

The Fire have a combination of limited flexibility for the rest of 2019, but potentially plenty for 2020.

Rodriguez said the Fire have used their full complement of the league’s new discretionary targeted allocation money. In addition, all three designated player spots are filled and the team is up against the limit of international players.

“It would be difficult to bring in a high-salary player without moving somebody out,” Rodriguez said. “Our plan for the summer is either to look and buy players, buy their contracts in the summer for incorporation into January, or if we can sell or trade a player to make room.”

On the flip side, the Fire won’t have any of the DPs under contract past 2019. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolić are out of contract, while the Fire hold an option on Aleksandar Katai.

Katai could return as a non-DP in 2020. Katai’s transfer fee won’t count against the Fire’s salary budget in 2020, meaning he wouldn’t necessarily require a DP spot.

Rodriguez said they won’t make a decision on any of the current DPs until the year is over.

Perhaps Schweinsteiger decides to play for another year or Nicolás Gaitán returns and takes up one of the DP spots. The Fire could also have the chance to make a big splash as they return to Soldier Field.

“We will be scouting for DPs,” Rodriguez said. “We have some players that we’re tracking now that would require DP status and DP level of investment and I also have permission from ownership that if the right player and the right circumstances comes along we may sign a DP in the summer. If we can’t add him to our current roster, loan him out and then just bring him back in January.”

Rodriguez also talked about potentially looking at upgrades at right back, but closed with an enticing line.

“Our intentions for the summer are still bigger than that,” he said.

Club infrastructure

The club’s scouting budget has been increased by $500,000 and the team is in the process of hiring two full-time scouts.

Additionally, Rodriguez says the team needs more fields for its academy. The practice facilities for both the first team and the academy are on the SeatGeek Stadium property.

“We have opened up that discussion with the village and our ownership group has made that commitment to make improvements here,” Rodriguez said. “It is my goal, my expectation that we’ll start to see some of those improvements this year, this summer.”

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