Can Chicago Fire find “balance” after Durán, Slonina transfers to Premier League?


Selling players for lucrative, club-record transfer fees is always a good thing. But it also invites the added pressure of reinvesting those funds in the squad to reach greater heights, a challenge MLS clubs are tackling in greater numbers.

That's the situation Chicago Fire FC find themselves in following Tuesday's announcement that they've sold Jhon Durán to Aston Villa for a reported $22 million ($18 million guaranteed). The 19-year-old Colombian forward represents the second major outbound transfer to the English Premier League the club has completed since last August, when they agreed to send 18-year-old homegrown goalkeeping prodigy Gaga Slonina to Chelsea for a reported $15 million ($10 million base).

Heading into their 2023 campaign, the moves leave Chicago at a critical juncture in their roster development, with the focus now on effectively allocating their new war chest of resources. Those funds push $40 million in recent transfer fees acquired when also factoring in Polish international Przemysław Frankowski's reported $3 million deal to Ligue 1's RC Lens in 2021 and homegrown product Djordje Mihailovic's reported $6 million move to the Eredivisie's AZ Alkmaar this winter (received a 10% cut from CF Montréal’s deal).

"Ideally for us, we'd like to be both a team that is able to develop players and move them on, as well as remain competitive," head coach Ezra Hendrickson told reporters during his Wednesday media call. "You have to find a balance within those. But I think it speaks volumes for us as an organization that within the past few months we were able to move on to two teenage promising players onto the EPL.

" … We have to balance that with making sure that we remain competitive and making sure that we're replacing those players that if they do move on, either players from in-house or players, that we've scouted that we've recruited to come here, just as we did with Durán," Hendrickson continued. "So it's a tricky situation, but it's not a bad situation to be in. It means that people look at your players and it means that your recruitment department is doing a good job of finding players, whether it be from abroad or from homegrown, as we saw with Gaga and Durán. The key is to be able to replace those players."

Replacing Durán & Gaga

In Durán and Slonina, Chicago are faced with departures that leave notable voids in production.

Slonina recorded the third-most clean sheets in MLS last year (12), and seems a huge US men's national team prospect after rejecting recruiting interest from Poland, his parents' European homeland. Now all signs point to Chris Brady, an 18-year-old homegrown and US youth international standout – who's reportedly already been subject to reported interest from Belgium's Club Brugge – replacing him.

Durán took slightly longer to establish himself after his move from Colombian club Envigado FC, but the U22 Initiative signing experienced a late-season breakout and finished as Chicago's leading scorer with eight goals/three assists in 1,363 minutes. He already has three senior team appearances for Colombia, too.

Asked if Durán's exit could lead to Chicago being aggressive in seeking forward help, Hendrickson was lukewarm on specifics. They have an open Designated Player spot and two open U22 Initiative spots, with Fire FC owner Joe Mansueto showing a willingness to spend big – as evidenced by last winter's club-record incoming deal for Swiss international midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri ($7.5 million from Ligue 1's Lyon).

"We determined in the offseason that there's a possibility that [the sale] would happen," Hendrickson said. "So it's been ongoing as far as us trying to find a suitable replacement. But the key is not to rush into anything. We do have players here who have proven that they can score in this league. We know that we need to add some additional players and that's one position that we always thought we would have to add."

Chicago's lead remaining striker is Kacper Przybyłko, who they acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Union last year. The former Poland youth international had 5g/1a last year, his lowest season production-wise in MLS.

"We know that we need to add some additional players, and [striker is] one position that we always thought we would have to add," Hendrickson said. "We have ongoing talks with a couple players, but nothing is finalized yet [and] we hope to within the next coming weeks before the season starts."

Pushing for playoffs

Whoever Chicago brings in, Hendrickson knows the importance of getting deals over the line before Chicago begin their 2023 campaign against New York City FC at Soldier Field on March 4 (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). They have a bye on Matchday 1, unlike the league's 28 other clubs.

"We have a couple of players that we've been looking at, not just since this happened, but before," Hendrickson said. "These things sometimes take time, but hopefully we can get this across the line before March 4, our first game, or even before that so we can actually have the player ready for March 4."

Any impending moves will be with an eye fully toward a return to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, which they've qualified for just twice since 2010. Last year, Chicago finished 24th in the overall league table.

"Our No. 1 goal is to get into the playoffs," the second-year manager said. "We felt like we were close enough last year barring injuries and barring some letdowns in a couple games, we were right there. So we just want to continue in that vein and make sure that we replace the players that we've lost since October/November."