BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nelson Rodriguez has been the general manager of the Chicago Fire for three seasons. In two of those, the team totaled less than a point per match.
With that in mind, Rodriguez faced the media for a postseason press conference Thursday to give an update on the state of the Fire. Rodriguez took the blame for the Fire’s 32-point season, which ranked 20th out of 23 teams, in his opening statement.
“The results on the field did not come, and that is disappointing for everyone,” Rodriguez said. “I am responsible. I didn’t do a good enough job. No one should blame ownership. We had all the resources we needed to succeed. It’s not the fault of the coaches or the staff. This season has my fingerprints on it.”
The Fire racked up 30 points in 2015, which opened the door for Rodriguez to take over. The following year’s 31 points were somewhat forgiven based on the rebuilding state of the club that he inherited.
When the Fire took a big positive step in 2017, finishing with the third best regular-season record in the league and the first playoff berth since 2012, Rodriguez appeared to be on the right track. However, sliding back into another bad season raises questions about the Fire’s future under Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunović.
When explaining what went wrong, Rodriguez used a word he used multiple times throughout the year: urgency.
“I should have had more urgency about getting some things done and I didn’t,” he said. “I thought for sure we would find the right players and get things done. You get no credit for not doing a bad deal, but it also doesn’t help when you don’t get enough good players. We made attempts to bring in players. They didn’t come through for various reasons.”
The lack of additions led to a thin roster that was later depleted by significant injuries. Rodriguez detailed a number of potential additions the Fire were close to signing, but didn’t come to fruition.
One was an experienced goalkeeper they chased in January and February; rumors at that time connected the Fire to Iker Casillas. Another player, a No. 10 as described by Rodriguez, backed out of a deal after a transfer fee and personal terms had been agreed to because his father didn’t want him playing in MLS. Rodriguez mentioned the Fire made a $17-million offer for an attacking midfielder, but were rejected by his club. Finally, there was a centerback who he said starts for his national team, but MLS blocked the deal.
“We reached terms with that club,” Rodriguez explained. “We reached general terms with that player, but the structure of that deal was complicated. Major League Soccer did not approve of the structure. I think they were correct in making that decision, and we didn’t have enough time in the remaining window to sort that out.”
While those stories are intriguing in terms of what could have been, the deals didn’t happen and the Fire struggled in 2018. Another bad year in 2019 would theoretically put a lot of pressure on Rodriguez’s job.
“We need to get more good players,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t come up empty-handed. I also think that we can’t be reactionary. There’s a line there. There will be some who will see me as rigid. I prefer to see myself as disciplined. Yeah, we could have signed some players, but if they had bad contracts, I would have avoided the difficult nature of these questions today. But I’d be answering them for two or three more years after the fact. Having said that, we have to improve the team. That does require reinforcements.”
As for Paunović, Rodriguez made it sound like the coach, whose is out of contract, will return.
“It remains my intention for Pauno to come back,” Rodriguez said. “I believe he still wants to return. We have not yet met since the season end. He is currently overseas scouting players and he and I are scheduled to meet next week.”
A Chicago training facility?
One of the more interesting news items to come from Thursday’s press conference was that the Fire are looking into a training facility off the Toyota Park campus. The team currently trains on a field adjacent to the parking lot.
“We’re considering a secondary training facility that may not be on this campus,” Rodriguez said. “It’s an obvious challenge, but it’s hard to find land in Chicago and I think we would prefer to be closer to the city if we were to build a second facility, and clearly we can and need to improve our facilities here in conjunction with the Village of Bridgeview.”
Matt Polster’s future
Matt Polster endured an injury-plagued 2018 that limited him to one start and three appearances. He came off the bench in each of the last two games. He’s now out of contract.
The wording of an Instagram post led to questions about his future.
“As I approach the end of the 2018 season and my first professional contract I want to take a second to reminisce on the last four years in Chicago,” the post read. “This city, our fans, and my teammates got me through the darkest period of my career and have helped me grow as a player on the pitch and as a human off. Unsure of what’s to come next, but I can’t wait.”
View this post on Instagram
As I approach the end of the 2018 season and my first professional contract I want to take a second to reminisce on the last four years in Chicago. This city, our fans, and my teammates got me through the darkest period of my career and have helped me grow as a player on the pitch and as a human off. Unsure of what’s to come next, but I can’t wait. 👊🏼
But Rodriguez said the Fire will make an offer for Polster to return, and “that offer will be in conjunction with Major League Soccer, which will, at the least, ensure that his rights within MLS will remain with us.”
“But we’d like to bring Matt back,” Rodriguez continued. “He’s expressed a desire to return, so hopefully we can finalize that to mutual satisfaction.”
Polster may have other aspirations he’s considering as well. The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio reported that Polster’s first choice is to try his hand in Europe.
Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez said they will make an offer to maintain Polster's rights. Says Polster wants to return. My sources tell me Polster's first choice is to head to Europe. Will exhaust those options first.
— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) November 1, 2018
Rash of retirements
Alan Gordon announced his retirement before Sunday’s season finale, but that was no major surprise for the 37-year-old. On Tuesday, 24-year-old Brandon Vincent announced he is also retiring. That came as quite the shock.
Vincent was a regular starter for the Fire who even had a cap with the United States men’s national team. His decision to walk away raised plenty of questions.
Then, just hours before Rodriguez’s press conference, 25-year-old defender Christian Dean also announced his retirement. Dean started two of the first three games of the season, when the Fire had multiple injuries on the back line, but didn’t play again the rest of the year.
“Brandon made a personal decision that he shared with me on Tuesday morning,” Rodriguez said. “It’s clearly something that he had been thinking about. He has declined some interview opportunities. I don’t think I’m betraying a confidence when I share that what he said to me was he was ready for a new chapter in his life. We respect that. We wish him happiness and success.
“Christian had suggested to me that he was thinking about retirement and was looking at other roles outside of the game. I can’t speak for him. I think injuries played a part, and it’s been unfortunate. He’s a man with a lot of talent, but the reality is he hasn’t been able to be on the field consistently. I think they’re completely unrelated to one another and absolutely unrelated to our environment.”