After a sparkling spell with FC Basel, Georg Heitz wanted something different for his next move in club soccer.
He left the Swiss powerhouse in the summer of 2017 and, after two and a half years working as a consultant, Chicago Fire FC provided him the perfect opportunity to become sporting director as the club underwent perhaps the most comprehensive offseason transformation in league history. It was too fascinating to pass up.
“This league is becoming more and more attractive," Heitz told MLSsoccer.com last week. "I’m convinced this league will boom, you can feel this."
As clubs around the league continue to break records for transfer fees, players, coaches and executives alike, like Heitz, are turning to MLS.
The Swiss-born Heitz worked as technical director for Basel for nine seasons, guiding the club to great success, including eight league titles and three Swiss Cups. All the while, they helped develop a number of superstars like Mohamed Salah, Xherdan Shaqiri Ivan Rakitic, Yann Sommer and others. He left Basel in the summer of 2017 and remained unattached from a club before Chicago.
“I always said if I go back to club football, it must be something different," Heitz said. "I couldn’t have gone to another Swiss club, this was clear. To move to similar leagues culturally, like Germany or Austria, was not really challenging for me. The challenge here was a new country, new language, new regulations and all these things. I’ve been looking for a challenge, I’m happy to be here. It’s a great city, good club and we have ambitions.”
The journey to achieving those ambitions started anew this offseason, and Heitz is the man tasked with plotting the way there.
Heitz arrived with the Fire in December with plenty of room to work, though less than a month before preseason kicked off. He took over a club that had been ready for a rebuild this winter, thus had less than a matchday squad of players rostered. Heitz had all three Designated Player spots to work with, as well as a bunch of salary space and allocation money.
Before diving into the senior squad, though, Heitz had to start by filling out a front office and coaching staff.
“We had a clear priority: First the staff, then the players," Heitz said. "After, we discussed with the staff the profiles we were looking for. People like (technical director) Sebastian Pelzer, they are always in soccer. If we give them a profile, he’ll immediately name me three players. We came here with a couple of ideas, but we also had to sync with the head coach and coaching staff.”
Looking to fill those holes, Chicago got to work. Without a ton of time to maneuver, they relied on their vast networks. Heitz himself was ready for the opportunity, with an updated shortlist of players across all positions even during his time as a consultant.
“Almost all the new players have been on our radar before we came here," Heitz said. "It was a clear policy we had this transfer window. We didn’t have too much time, so we had to be sure on our signings. We’ll have to establish a scouting department. We mainly signed players we knew before.”
Heitz and his staff worked swiftly this winter, adding 11 players (of 12 total additions, as Alvaro Medran was signed in October). Forward Robert Beric, winger Ignacio Aliseda and defensive midfielder Gaston Gimenez arrived as three new DPs. Fullback Miguel Angel Navarro, defender Boris Sekulic and midfielder Luka Stojanovic are another few key additions this winter.
Though operating on a new continent in a new league with many new rules and regulations, the offseason wasn't too unfamiliar to Heitz. Basel were a club that some of Europe's elites would often look to for recruits. In many of those title-winning seasons, their best players would move on to Chelsea, Bayern Munich and many more.
“Probably not, but close to this number," Heitz said when asked if he's ever had to fill this many key roles. "We always lost the best players in Basel to clubs from the big leagues, so every year we had to overhaul the team. Of course, we didn’t have too much time (this year), but we had enough time.”
If all goes well, the Fire will boom over the coming years, too.