BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — To say losing has become habit for the Chicago Fire might be harsh, but winning certainly has not been one.
It’s been a decade since the Fire last won a playoff game. In the last four years under general manager and president Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunović, things haven’t improved. The duo has one playoff appearance, 2017, and the third-worst points per game record in the league during that span (not including 2019 expansion team FC Cincinnati).
So when someone says something in the team’s environment isn’t right, it’s no shock to anyone who has followed the club for the past 10 years. That Rodriguez is the one who said it comes as more of a surprise.
Rodriguez addressed reporters Monday and gave his assessment of why the team fell short of internal expectations.
“We had all that we needed and we didn’t deliver,” Rodriguez said. “Why didn’t we make the playoffs? I have to be honest in that some of those lines remain blurred to me, but some are also very clear.”
Rodriguez said the team’s talent level was good enough and the team’s football, as he put it, “did not let us down.”
“I’m left with the conclusion that something in our environment needs to improve,” Rodriguez said. “Something in our environment just isn’t right.”
Rodriguez explained that he hasn’t been “as available” as he needs to be with his dual roles. As a result, the Fire are adding a member to the technical staff to focus on the first team players and coaching staff.
“I’m not sure if this is a technical director, or a sporting director, the general manager,” Rodriguez said. “I think the qualities of the individual will dictate that. This person, though, will have as a primary, and at least initially as a solitary focus, the first team. I think that’s where our focus needs to be on improving.”
New owner Joe Mansueto is heading into his first offseason as the sole owner of the team, but it doesn’t sound like Rodriguez or Paunović are going anywhere. Rodriguez said he understands fan skepticism, admitting “you are what your record says you are,” but some things will have to change.
“One thing is clear, we cannot continue doing the same things in the same way and expect a different result,” Rodriguez said. “So I’ll be having conversations with Pauno this week, and the staff. I have some things in mind that need to change and have to change and will get better. If not, then we’ll be changed.”
There were some other newsworthy items from Rodriguez’s hour-long Q&A session.
Three options picked up
Rodriguez said the team is making decisions about contract options on a case-by-case basis instead of all at once. He announced three players — Fabian Herbers, Jeremiah Gutjahr and Micheal Azira — had their options picked up.
The Fire now have 14 players under contract for 2020.
Goalkeepers: Kenneth Kronholm and Gabriel Slonina
Defenders: Johan Kappelhof, Andre Reynolds, Jonathan Bornstein, Marcelo and Francisco Calvo
Midfielders: Brandt Bronico, Przemysław Frankowski, Álvaro Medrán, Gutjahr, Azira and Herbers
The 13 returning players among that group combined to make 167 starts, which account for 45 percent of the team’s starts in 2019. Medrán figures to be a starter and other returning starters could have their options picked up, but there’s a lot of starting minutes still to be figured out on this roster.
The players’ end-of-year interviews will take place the rest of the week.
The Fire don’t have any designated players under contract. Nicolás Gaitán would become one if he returns. Rodriguez said he’s meeting with Gaitán’s agent on Tuesday. Aleksandar Katai could become a TAM player if he returns.
With plenty of roster flexibility, Rodriguez said the team already has “four or five” players in mind.
“Our primary targets at the moment are in Spain, Poland, Argentina, Paraguay and Mexico,” he said.
Soldier Field configuration
Mansueto said he wants the team to sell out its 2020 home opener, March 21 against Atlanta, and average at least 25,000 fans at Soldier Field next season. The Fire are planning to have a setup with a 28,000 capacity.
“In general, we’re looking at a configuration of about 28,000, which is the 100 and 200 levels,” Rodriguez said. “Much like Seattle did and much like Atlanta has done, we’ll use an accordion to enlarge capacity as needed or when called upon or when it makes sense.”
Brand refresh coming
Rodriguez didn’t give specifics, but it sounded like some changes are coming to the Chicago Fire brand. Refreshing the brand has been talked about for over a year, but the final product of those talks could be revealed before the end of the year.
“I think we’re pretty much done with that,” Rodriguez said. “We’re just adding one or two final details. We will share that with Joe.
“We received great input and feedback from fans, from supporters, from partners, … We’re excited by it and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to show it in about a month’s time.”
He said Mansueto has also been involved in the process, as well as former owner Andrew Hauptman.
Rodriguez did refer to it as “the brand refresh” and “the brand reveal,” which seemed to eliminate the chance that nothing will change. It’s now a matter of what will change and how.