BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The setting may have been low-key and understated, but there was no escaping the substance of the words delivered by Nelson Rodriguez, the Chicago Fire’s new general manager.
Speaking in the club’s media room deep under Toyota Park’s East Stand, the man tasked with reviving the Fire’s on-field fortunes presented an assured and ambitious vision to the assembled press corps on Sunday.
“Globally, I want Chicago Fire to be recognized and heralded for being a winner, for the quality of its soccer, for its social commitment, for its ability to inspire,” Rodriguez boldly stated.
“Within MLS, I’d like for us to be considered as the new club paradigm,” he added. “That we have done things slightly differently; that we have taken a claim of sportsmanship and dignity and honor to a new level; that we can win with those values, and don’t need to get into the gutter with some of the things that have stained the game so much in the past.”
Lofty ambitions for a team that finished seven points adrift of the next worst team this year, and even more so when coupled with his assertion to the Daily Herald that he wanted the Chicago Fire to be “the first to 10” MLS Cups.
But Rodriguez speaks with enough poise, passion and purpose to lend authority to his words. Given his vast experience working with US Soccer and as an executive with MLS, it would seem that his entire career in the game has been building to this “dream job” – and that he will not be one to waste that opportunity.
“‘Nobody who gave his best ever regretted it,’” Rodriguez offered. “That quote comes from George Halas, and I think it’s incredibly apropos for me. I intend, I vow, to give my best to this city, to this soccer club. I have found in my career that losing teams and winning teams all have the same mentality. Both. The difference is that winning teams find an excuse to win; and that’s one of the first things that we need to work on here with the Fire. We need to find excuses to win.”
As first impressions go, the charismatic New Jersey native made all the right moves and said all the right things. Bedecked in a sharp grey suit with a well-chosen red and blue tie, Rodriguez thanked supporters’ group Sector Latino for a scarf they had given him, quoted former Chicago Bears owner Halas, and revealed “there’s a comfort that I feel in the city and in the community already.”
Rodriguez’s first task will be to find a new head coach and he is acutely aware of the significant challenge he faces as he bids to arrest the Fire’s alarming slide from perennial contenders to overlooked underachievers, having missed out on the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. But despite finishing as MLS’s bottom team with a franchise-record 20 defeats, Rodriguez believes owner Andrew Hauptman will provide the necessary resources to spark the revival.
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“Actually, I didn’t ask those questions and didn’t have that conversation,” Rodriguez admitted when asked if he had discussed budgets and resources for investment in the team with Hauptman before accepting the role. “I have no reason to believe that Andrew won’t provide the resources because he has, every year.
“The spend of this club is in the top quarter of all the clubs and what Andrew demands of me is something that I embrace: Have a plan, have contingencies for your plan, communicate your plan and execute against your plan. And that’s how I operate. There’s nothing in Andrew’s history that leads me to believe he would do anything other than support best in class.”
The Fire have not had a GM since Peter Wilt’s departure in 2005, while the club have not had a president since Julian Posada’s tenure came to an end in 2012. There have been similar, unfulfilled grounds for optimism surrounding previous key on- and off-field appointments throughout Hauptman’s reign.
Yet in Rodriguez, the Men in Red may have just found the right man for what promises to be a pivotal few months, and years, for the club.