On more than one occasion, after the final whistle in a Chicago Fire FC match in 2020, first-year head coach Raphael Wicky received great praise from an opposing manager.
While praise is always welcomed, it wasn't always ideal. It often came from games the Fire had lost.
Chicago missed out on the playoffs by just one point in Wicky's debut season on the sideline, with a roster and a club in transition. Sporting director Georg Heitz made a total of 17 acquisitions (of 18 new players this year; Alvaro Medran was signed before Heitz was appointed). It's a new era, and there's encouraging signs, but for the seventh time in eight years the Fire failed to make the playoffs.
Instead of a big offseason, though, Heitz and the Fire are going to rely on stability and growth as the major impetus behind change despite the club finishing 11th out of 14 in the Eastern Conference.
“This is just my perspective, but we didn’t end up in the table where we belonged in this team," Heitz told media on a virtual press conference. "We have to analyze the reasons this is the case, but we really think even against the best teams in this league, we were good. Obviously not good enough, but we don’t think we lack a lot to be competitive.”
Heitz also noted that the timing of the signings weren't ideal, with all but a handful of the new signings arriving long after preseason started.
This offseason began with Chicago announcing their roster decisions, which sees 27 players returning from last year's squad, with the club in negotiations to potentially bring back Brandt Bronico, meaning 28 of the 30 roster slots could be filled by the same players.
“One thing we have a focus on is continuity, it’s one thing we think we lacked," Heitz said. "We’ve had 18 new signings since [last season], that’s too many. We think we laid the foundation and we’d really like to keep most of the players we had this season. Of course we’ll try to strengthen the squad, signing maybe two or three more players.”
Heitz was hesitant to reveal which positions the club is targeting for improvements but did note consistently they aim to continue to drive down the average age of the squad.
They made a good start in that endeavor on Friday with their first addition of the offseason by acquiring 20-year-old Nigerian forward Chinonso Offor from Latvian first division Club FK Rīgas Futbola Skola. The unique signing was made possible by the club's new scouting department, who identified him as a potential target.
“He’s a young striker, a tall striker but nevertheless has a certain speed," Heitz. "One thing we need to give him is time. He comes from a small league but we consider him, our scouting department consider him, a very interesting option.”
Offor will occupy an international slot, while the club had nine players requiring such a roster designation (each team starts with around eight, depending on previous/current trades). That shouldn't be an issue, though, as Heitz revealed seven players are "in the final stages" to receive green cards, thus count on the roster as a domestic player.
With development and continuity from the squad, and all of last year's signings as well as the coaching staff, Heitz and co. are expecting improvement in 2021.
“In my opinion, the coaching staff did a great job," Heitz said. "We need to improve in converting our chances and converting performances into points. ... We want to be a winning side. We have to work on our winning spirit, this is clear. I didn’t have the impression we were outplayed in many games, we had quite good performances. But definitely, there are areas we have to improve.”