Hendrickson: Chicago Fire chasing "15-plus goalscorer" with open DP spot

Ezra Hendrickson

Chicago Fire FC, watching the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs from home for a fifth straight year, are in the early days of a pivotal offseason – one where they have an open Designated Player spot.

That situation arose in early October when it was announced midfielder Gastón Giménez’s new contract would remove his DP status, leaving just midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri and winger Jairo Torres carrying that roster tag.

The Fire already have a position of focus in mind, with head coach Ezra Hendrickson disclosing Chicago are pursuing a No. 9.

“We are looking to fill that spot with a striker and getting a proven goalscorer that has the numbers, that has – obviously we are going to look at the statistical things as far as physical abilities, speed, strength, all that stuff,” Hendrickson said Monday.

“Mainly someone that's a proven goalscorer because we think that to get to where we want to get, and that's back into the playoffs, we need someone that's a 12-plus, maybe even 15-plus goalscorer.”

Durán and Przybyłko

The Fire’s cupboard isn’t entirely bare – and Hendrickson offered a vote of confidence to 18-year-old Jhon Durán, who’s coming off his first caps with Colombia’s senior national team. Already linked to high-profile teams in Europe, Durán had 8g/3a in roughly 1,350 minutes during his first MLS season.

Ideally, the DP striker pushes Durán during the youngster’s second MLS campaign before he earns a possible transfer abroad.

“We still have to make sure, because Durán still is just an 18-year-old kid, that we have someone there that can help his maturation and also someone that's putting the ball in the back of the net themselves,” Hendrickson said.

Duran Gutierrez
Jhon Duran, left, celebrates scoring with Brian Gutierrez, right, at FC Cincinnati. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Chicago hoped Kacper Przybyłko would help matters, acquiring the Polish striker last January from the Philadelphia Union in exchange for $1,150,000 in General Allocation Money split across two seasons.

But Przybyłko managed only 5g/1a across roughly 1,600 minutes during his first Fire season, hampered by injuries and falling short of expectations. That, in part, contributed to Chicago scoring the second-fewest goals (39) in MLS during 2022.

“He was bothered by whatever injuries he was carrying, maybe the back or the foot or whatever,” Hendrickson said. “He never really got going and we expected him to produce a lot more than he did this year. So that's an area that we feel like we need to get some, like I said, competition in there and get some players that are going to put the ball away for us.”

Shaqiri’s year 1

Part of the striker conversation, Hendrickson said, is getting more out of club-record signing Xherdan Shaqiri. The Swiss midfielder, likely bound for his fourth World Cup this November, joined last offseason for a reported $7.5 million fee from Ligue 1’s Lyon.

Shaqiri, who just turned 31, was Chicago’s leading scorer with 7g/11a. He missed five games as Chicago finished 12th in the Eastern Conference standings.

“We thought Shaq did really, really well for us,” Hendrickson said. “Barring some injuries and stuff, he was there game-in and game-out. But he's just one person.”

Xherdan Shaqiri controls the ball against the Columbus Crew. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Shaqiri, who’s also had trophy-filled stops at Germany’s Bayern Munich and England’s Liverpool, among others, is the second-highest-paid player in the league, according to MLS Players Association figures. Naturally, that generates lofty expectations – and possibly soon a consistently productive striker he can find from central or wide positions.

“You have to have, especially a guy like Shaq who is so good at making that final pass, and dissecting defenses, you have to have someone at the end of those passes that's going to put the ball in the back of the net,” Hendrickson said.

“I think we were lacking that this year, in the first part of the year especially. We just weren't putting our chances away, and a lot of it was him creating those chances that we weren't putting away. That can become frustrating at times, but I thought he was very professional and he was very patient with what was going on with the team.”

Torres restart

Also in the final third, Chicago hope to get more out of Torres. The 22-year-old joined for a reported $6 million transfer fee in the spring after helping Atlas win a Liga MX title, arriving with big expectations.

But Torres produced just 0g/1a across 684 minutes (14 games), far outproduced by the likes of Chris Mueller and Brian Gutierrez. Now, the Mexican attacker is recovering from left leg surgery and is expected to be ready for 2023.

“I think he never really got to show us what he can do, and I think a lot of people are going to be surprised once he's recovered and he's back on the pitch playing,” Hendrickson said. “At times, we saw a little glimpse of the player that we brought in.

“ … He fits our system very well. We just hope going into next season we have him at full strength, because I think he'll surprise a lot of people who maybe still have doubts or maybe who don't really see what we saw before bringing him into the squad.”

Gaga replacement?

Another big question Chicago must confront is who will step into the starting goalkeeper spot, now that US youth international Gaga Slonina officially joins Chelsea. The 18-year-old’s Premier League move could net the Fire a $15 million fee, one of MLS’s largest-ever transfers abroad for a homegrown player.

All signs point to Chris Brady, another homegrown talent and US youth international, stepping into Slonina’s role. Brady, who turns 19 just after the 2023 season starts, is coming off being arguably the best individual goalkeeper in MLS NEXT Pro.

“It's not a position that we are just going to hand to Brady,” Hendrickson said. “But\] if you asked me now, I would say yes, he's the frontrunner to take over the reins. But we know the competition needs to be there and he'll get that from [\[Spencer\] Richey and whoever else, other keepers that we have here.”

Chicago’s defense was in the top third in the East, allowing 48 goals. Slonina’s 12 shutouts were a big reason why, so there’s a sizable hole to fill.

“I think the way we defend as a team, we are a very organized team,” Hendrickson said. “Hence not making the playoffs and still having 12 shutouts. Some of that was Gaga but a lot of it was team defending. We were not getting broken down by teams very easily, and we have to continue that. With another young keeper in the goal, we have to continue that as a team as far as our team defending.”

Chris Brady Chicago
Chris Brady made one start during the 2022 season. (Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports)

"Playoffs is a must"

All this builds toward Hendrickson’s second year at the helm, getting the lead gig in the Windy City after assistant stops at the Columbus Crew, LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders.

The 50-year-old Saint Vincent and the Grenadines native faces the challenging task of turning around a once-dominant Fire club that’s finished outside the playoff picture all but two seasons since 2010.

Anything less than a postseason return will be unacceptable, Hendrickson said, when assessing the months ahead in the buildup to 2023.

“Playoffs is a must. We have to do what it takes to get this team back into the playoffs,” Hendrickson said.

“Even this year, the beginning of the year, trying to rebuild this thing, we have shown at times that we can play with the top teams and we can really, really compete and be in the playoffs. But we just are not quite there yet.”