National Writer: Charles Boehm

Ezra Hendrickson hails Chicago Fire’s capture of “game-changer” Xherdan Shaqiri

Chicago Fire FC have embraced “Make No Little Plans,” a turn of phrase from the city’s iconic 1900s architect and planner Daniel Burnham, as a pillar of their identity under owner and chairman Joe Mansueto.

That aggressive mindset courses through their recruitment of Xherdan Shaqiri, the Switzerland national team star officially announced as their newest signing on Wednesday.

“When you sign a player like this for an organization like the Chicago Fire, on the field it’s going to show and I think off the field also,” head coach Ezra Hendrickson told reporters in a media availability from CF97’s preseason camp in Austin, Texas. “The fans, just the excitement that's going to create for us having a player of that quality, that caliber. That kind of type of player is going to really lift the fans, and it's going to create some excitement off the pitch.”

The Swiss international and two-time UEFA Champions League winner reportedly cost Chicago $7.5 million to acquire from Ligue 1's Olympique Lyon. Despite Shaqiri’s dip in productivity and form during his brief stint in France, the Fire are not hesitant about laying out their great expectations for him in terms of scoring punch, playmaking creativity, leadership and sheer entertainment.

“I spoke with him last Saturday and just within the first two to three minutes, you could tell just how much this guy wanted to be here and how much him being here is going to help us,” said Hendrickson. “Just the excitement that you can hear in his voice, wanting to really come here and really help this city and this club. That was very important to us, beyond just what we know he can do on the pitch.

“We have a young team that, he's going to have to be patient with some of the guys,” he added, “but I think after speaking to him, I can see that he's a guy that's going to come here and do whatever it takes to help us, [even if] it’s defending, because we talked about how everyone defends as a team and we all attack as a team. He has buy-in to that.”

Hendrickson envisions “The Cube of Power,” as he was dubbed in Germany, as the No. 10 at the heart of his planned 4-2-3-1 system, but sees the former Liverpool and Bayern Munich dynamo capable of contributing anywhere along the band of three.

The first-year boss also pointed to recent trade acquisition Kacper Pryzbylko (from Philadelphia) as a promising henchman for Shaqiri’s passing vision and set-piece deliveries, sketching out a vision of an attacking threat on a magnitude comparable to MLS Cup-winning talents like NYCFC’s Taty Castellanos, Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron in Atlanta and Lucas Zelarayan at his former club Columbus Crew.

“If you look at the teams who have been successful recently and win championships, there’s always that special player,” said Hendrickson. “Maybe it was Castellanos last year, a couple years ago Zelarayan with us in Columbus, back to Atlanta with those guys, Josef Martinez and those guys like that. I think you need a player that could really be a game-changer, who by a snap of the finger can change the game for you … And also we went out and got a striker in Pryzbylko that needs someone to get him the ball and we think Shaqiri is going to be very, very useful in unlocking defenses.”

Chicago’s pursuit was aided by his acquaintance with sporting director Georg Heitz from their time together at FC Basel in their homeland, and the player seems to have embraced a holistic set of responsibilities that are reminiscent of first-generation Designated Players like David Beckham and Chicago icon Cuauhtemoc Blanco. And while no specific salary numbers have yet been reported, Shaqiri is likely to rank among the top earners in the league.

It’s the latest of several bold moves made under Mansueto’s guidance as the club aims to grab Chicagoland’s attention and return to the ranks of MLS contenders.

“The end goal is to always be as successful as we can be. And we have an owner that I think is going to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens,” said Hendrickson of Mansueto. “He’s a Chicagoan and wants to see success in this city. So we'll do whatever we can.”