Either as a player or coach, Ezra Hendrickson has been around Major League Soccer since the league’s second season. He's just about seen or done it all.
But now he begins a new chapter.
Hendrickson was named head coach of Chicago Fire FC last week, with the 49-year-old standing out in a field of more than 100 applicants, according to sporting director Georg Heitz.
“There’ll be some growing pains,” Hendrickson told media at his introductory press conference, “but we’re going to get this thing right, get this team back to where we belong as one of the top teams in this league.”
Chicago, who parted ways with Raphael Wicky midseason, finished 2021 under Frank Klopas' leadership on an interim basis. Then the 1998 MLS Cup winners acted swiftly, hiring the former Columbus Crew assistant.
“I’m convinced this is a perfect fit for the Fire,” Heitz added.
Hendrickson was an assistant under Sigi Schmid for the Seattle Sounders until 2014 when he became head coach of Seattle Sounders 2 (later re-branded as Tacoma Defiance), their USL Championship affiliate. He spent time as an assistant with Saint Vincent and the Grenadines before also working for the LA Galaxy and, most recently, Columbus until taking over in Chicago.
“The assessment was not easy for the candidates, we did not ask easy questions and he did great,” Heitz said. "When you hire someone, you want them to be hungry. He’s very hungry, he was very keen on becoming our head coach.”
The feeling is mutual, with Hendrickson excited for the potential at Chicago.
While they’ve struggled for success in recent years, making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs once since 2013, there are plenty of reasons for optimism with the right changes. Chicago have a number of exciting young talents, including Gabriel Slonina, Federico Navarro, Brian Gutierrez, Mauricio Pineda and new signing Jhon Jader Duran, a highly-rated Colombian forward who was acquired last winter for 2022, after his 18th birthday.
The Fire also have at least one Designated Player spot open – potentially another two, depending on what happens this winter with Gaston Gimenez and Ignacio Aliseda – and an owner who will provide ample backing.
“I see a lot of potential. This is an opportunity I wanted to take and go forward with,” Hendrickson said. “To have an owner like Joe [Mansueto] who has invested so much is a big factor. If you don’t have that backing, it becomes difficult. … It takes an owner with a vision for the team to be successful. When you put all of that together – the soccer minds running the day-to-day operations, an owner like that, a city like this and the type of players we have currently – it’s exciting times.”
Supplementing that young roster with veteran talent is a priority this winter.
“We have a lot of good, young talent but you need leadership, people to help bring those players along,” Hendrickson said. “There are some leadership issues we need to fix in the locker room, but we’re working on bringing guys in.”
Hendrickson noted defender Jonathan Bornstein is an important leader for the club. Bornstein's future had been up in the air, and while nothing was officially announced Monday, Heitz also noted the 37-year-old will be back.
“We’re working on signing new players,” Heitz added. “We’ll definitely focus a bit more on experience this offseason, that’s for sure. I agree with what Ezra said, we need more leadership.”
Hendrickson has been waiting some time for his first chance at becoming a head coach. He’s been thinking of and planning for this moment and how he'll leave his own mark.
“I always knew the opportunity would come,” Hendrickson said. “And I always told myself when it came, I’d be ready for it. I’m ready. I’m excited to get started.”
“One thing I always do is try to put myself in the shoes of a player. I ask myself: Could this guy motivate me?” Heitz asked. “Would I run for him? I’d definitely run quite far for Ezra.”