When Nelson Rodriguez took the Chicago Fire GM job in September 2015, never in his worst nightmares did he imagine the team would finish at the very bottom of MLS last year.
And never – never – in his wildest dreams did he dare to think his club would be fighting for a Supporters’ Shield nearly two-thirds of the way through his second season in Bridgeview.
It hasn’t exactly been a linear climb up the standings, but there go the Fire: five points behind Toronto FC in the Shield standings, and just behind them on the top points-per-game average heading into Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game (8:30pm ET | FS1, Univision; TSN, TVAS) in Chicago. Their 11-5-5 record is no fluke. This isn’t a team that defends deep, holds on for dear life and sacrifices a stat sheet at the altar of the counterattacking gods. After years drifting between MLS purgatory and the deepest, darkest depths of the league basement, Chicago – led by All-Stars Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Johan Kappelhof and dynamic attacker David Accam – are legit contenders for multiple trophies.
“I feel very good about the hierarchy, the talent, the competition and the personality that is in the locker room,” Rodriguez recently told MLSsoccer.com.
Getting here, of course, required some serious foresight, planning and discipline from Rodriguez, head coach Veljko Paunovic and their staff. A part of the team at the league office that designed many of MLS’s roster rules, Rodriguez arrived in Chicago with as firm a grasp on the league’s byzantine, ever-evolving regulations as any GM. That type of knowledge is currency in MLS, and Rodriguez’s foundation gave the Fire a nice nest egg as they began to rebuild.
Rodriguez’s expertise wasn’t the only thing the Fire banked that winter. A couple of weeks after Paunovic was hired in November, the league announced a second infusion of Targeted Allocation Money. Following the initial injection of TAM into the MLS ecosystem that summer, the league announced that every team would receive $800,000 of the new funds for the 2016 season (and ultimately, $1.2 million).
That TAM, along with its cousin, General Allocation Money, would become key parts of the Fire’s rebuild. Unlike many of his counterparts around the league, Rodriguez didn’t see a need to burn through the new cash right away. For the most part, he concentrated on stockpiling it.
The idea, outlined with Paunovic as part of a three-year plan they’ve referenced often over the last 18 months, was to turnover a large part of the roster they inherited, make strategic signings here and there and collect as many assets and create as much space as possible before making a real run at big-time players between the 2016 and 2017 MLS campaigns. They wanted 4-to-6 impact players after their first year in charge, and a core group of 5-to-7 after year two. They thought the 2018 season would be where they took a big step forward.
Things are ahead of schedule.
Rodriguez and Paunovic went to work on their roster shortly after taking over, trading the No. 1 pick in the 2016 SuperDraft – Jack Harrison – to New York City FC for the No. 4 selection – Brandon Vincent – and what a source said earlier this year was $250,000 in General Allocation Money. They remained active during the draft, pulling trades with Seattle and Colorado that saw Joevin Jones head to the Sounders (and now Darmstadt), the No. 1 spot in the Allocation Order go to the Rapids and the 12th pick – Jonathan Campbell – and TAM land in Chicago. They picked up even more TAM in February, when they sent Homegrown midfielder Harry Shipp to Montreal.
The moves were unpopular with Fire fans, who, after missing the playoffs in five of six seasons before Rodriguez and Paunovic arrived, didn’t expect new management to move back in the draft and deal two of the team’s most promising players in their first months on the job. But Rodriguez and Paunovic knew they had lots of holes to fill, and were focused on creating the space they needed to fill them. As long as they kept internal discipline in the face of external pressure, they felt their plan would work.
“I’m proud that we were very disciplined in following our plan,” Rodriguez said. “People may view that when we trade out a player as a 1-for-1, we traded a player and got just one thing back, whether it’s a player or money or whatever. But it’s rarely, rarely that way. It’s usually interconnected to something else.”
The final part of that quote – the knee-bone-is-connected-to-the-thigh bone nature of roster building – is key to understanding Chicago’s quick rebuild. Those early trades allowed the Fire to use TAM to sign both Kappelhof in February 2016 and fellow Dutchman Michael de Leeuw in May. Jettisoning unproductive, expensive forwards Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike, the latter of whom was traded to D.C. for yet more Allocation Money, freed up two Designated Player spots in the summer and created a ton of room in the budget and on the field.
Laying the Foundation
Given their strategy of stockpiling assets and building towards a big offseason, it’s fitting that one of Chicago’s biggest moves of the 2016 season was a signing they chose not to pursue. The Fire feel like they had a shot at landing midfielder Alejandro Bedoya when he returned to the US last summer, but they decided not to chase him, instead trading the No. 1 spot in the Allocation Ranking to Philadelphia in exchange for – you guessed it – more Allocation Money.
As expected, they caught a lot of heat for not going after Bedoya. When the US international joined MLS in August, the Fire were in the throes of a miserable season, last in the league and with fewer points than they had at the same juncture in 2015. By that point, however, Rodriguez and Paunovic had already identified their three prized winter pickups: Nikolic, McCarty and Schweinsteiger. Landing Bedoya would’ve unquestionably made the Fire better, but his salary and DP status would’ve likely prevented them from acquiring that entire trio, to say nothing of landing Juninho. The Fire understood the opportunity cost of signing Bedoya, and punted.
“There were times where we were presented with an option, at least in our minds, to improve as a team in a certain way, but it would jeopardize improving the team in the manner that we wanted and in the order that we wanted,” Rodriguez said. “So we resisted. And I think that has helped us.”
Not chasing Bedoya allowed the Fire to head into the winter flush with cash – and possibilities. Their cap room, along with their trade of goalkeeper Sean Johnson for more Allocation in December, set the table for the series of big moves they made this winter. Nikolic was the first domino to fall, signing a DP deal with Chicago on December 20. Juninho arrived via the Allocation Process three days later.
Those signings were seen as positives, but the big fish – McCarty and Schweinsteiger – wouldn’t come until after the New Year. Before they could solidify their spine with two of the top center mids in the league, however, Chicago first had to collect some more assets. Another draft day deal, once more with NYCFC, netted the Fire $250,000 in GAM in exchange for the No. 3 overall pick.
That money became wildly important a couple of days after the draft, when they sent $400,000 in GAM – one of the largest amounts of Allocation Money traded in league history – to the New York Red Bulls for McCarty. The move shocked the league and gave the Fire some serious cred. All of a sudden, the longtime doormat looked like a playoff contender.
The coup de grace of their huge transfer window came in March, when Rodriguez and Paunovic successfully reeled in Schweinsteiger from Manchester United. Now, with the German legend integrated into the team, Nikolic emerging as perhaps the best scorer in MLS, Accam having an excellent year and McCarty his usual, stellar self, the Fire are much more than a mere playoff hopeful.
Where from Here
Even though only four players remain from the initial roster they inherited, Rodriguez and Paunovic still have plenty of work to do. The Fire have holes, and big, glaring questions looming this winter. News broke over the weekend that Accam, who has a team option for 2018, submitted a transfer request after Paunovic did not select him for the All-Star Game; Juninho’s loan expires at the end of the year; Schweinsteiger will be out of contract following the season.
Schweinsteiger and Accam are the biggest issues. In reporting Accam's exit ask, Ives Galarcep added that multiple teams from France’s Ligue 1 have made offers for the Ghanaian, but that Chicago – who could also deal Accam within MLS – haven’t yet received a transfer package they’d be willing to accept.
Rodriguez said that the Fire “have received offers for David’s services” ever since the GM arrived at the club and that they “evaluate those offers vis-à-vis our valuation of the player and against our overall plan.” Accam has come off the bench and scored in both of Chicago’s last two matches.
Rodriguez is regularly in touch with Schweinsteiger’s agent, but said that all parties agreed in advance that they wouldn’t discuss a new contract until after the season ended. For now, Rodriguez – not one to deviate from a plan – says he’ll stick to that.
“I think Bastian has really enjoyed Chicago, I think he’s really enjoyed Major League Soccer and that’s a huge positive,” Rodriguez said. “I’m the one who’s the one who’s always tapping the brakes on these things because we’re only halfway through the season and we endured last year. I know how difficult this league can be and how cruel sports can be, so I would prefer that we remain patient, remain visible, go through the season, talk about how it went, where we can get better and then do they still want to do this, do they want to recommit to this, and [we decide] where we are.”
Rodriguez also hinted that a player could be coming this summer. It’s been reported in recent weeks that Chicago are in the running to sign midfielder Juan Quintero. Rodriguez wouldn’t comment specifically on the Colombian, but indicated that the team may soon have to decide on a potential transfer target. If Chicago hold onto Accam, it’s been reported that they would have to acquire TAM in order to buy his contract down so they could sign Quintero, who would command a DP deal.
“Typically in this window I like, I prefer that we skip it, frankly,” he said. “We have been charting most of our intentions to January but there are opportunities that sometimes are timestamped and you have to make a decision as to this might be the only time that you can get something done, and so, do you do it? That’s something that we are thinking about right now. Those deadlines, sometimes you impose them, sometimes they’re imposed on you, and you have to look at that.”
While they have a bit of roster uncertainty and plenty left to prove on the field, the Fire’s days in the basement appear to be behind them. They’re finally hitting on their big signings, and they’re no longer playing whack-a-mole with the rest of their roster. Through stockpiling resources, deploying them patiently, remaining committed to their long-term plan and splashing some cash, Chicago turned things around. As long as Rodriguez and Paunovic maintain their disciplined approach, there’s no reason to think their success won’t continue.
“There’s so much that can happen, but my sense is that we do we have a really dependable core group of players that enjoy each other,” said Rodriguez. “They have taken that next step from last year. Last year, we learned how to compete, this year we are learning how to win and then the next step beyond that is learn how to be a champion.”