But Chicago didn’t release the 19-year-old, nor goalkeeper Chris Brady, when US coach Mikey Varas came calling. Fire FC brass, instead, deemed both homegrown standouts too central to their ongoing MLS season. Clubs aren’t required to release players for the prestigious youth tournament, a decision that’s sparked much debate throughout American soccer circles.
Gutiérrez keeps climbing
Chicago’s position was somewhat vindicated Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field, earning a 1-0 win over St. Louis CITY SC as Rivalry Week begins. The victory, six days removed from the club parting ways with head coach Ezra Hendrickson and kickstarting a third Frank Klopas era, has improved vibes around the Windy City – and Gutiérrez played a key role.
“[Gutiérrez] right now is at a different level and he can continue, he's going to continue to grow and take more responsibility upon himself. But today, he was incredible,” said Klopas after Chicago’s second win over the MLS newcomers this week, also defeating them Tuesday in the US Open Cup Round of 32.
“Good with the ball, his work rate, key passes, ability to beat players, technical ability – he's got everything in my mind,” continued Klopas. “And you can just see year by year, I've seen him grow and mature even when he was on Fire Academy. He’s really playing like a man now.”
Klopas’ praise comes after placing Gutiérrez wide left and Xherdan Shaqiri centrally in the No. 10 role, a decision intended to get both on the pitch at the same time. That’s rarely been the case in 2023, creating a quandary of sorts where Gutiérrez has proven more impactful than their club-record signing who’s played at four World Cups for Switzerland and previously shined at world-renowned clubs like Bayern Munich and Liverpool.
But Klopas, who was an assistant on Hendrickson’s staff, believes there are solutions where the youngster and Designated Player can not just function in the same starting XI, but thrive together.
“There's ways, but it's only through training,” said Klopas, noting the 31-year-old Shaqiri has battled fitness issues this year. “They're smart players. You can see at moments how easy it is for them to connect and play together, they're on the same wavelength. So, the more time that they stay injury-free, the sharper they will be. And if that happens, I think you can see a big difference in this team."
Shaqiri shows up
That difference arose in the 40th minute when Shaqiri whipped in a free kick that captain Rafael Czichos slid home for the game’s only goal – a play that began with Gutiérrez drawing the final-third foul.
Shaqiri, with that left-footed service, notched his first goal contribution of the new season, after leading Chicago in that category (7g/11a) in 2022. Looking more committed on both sides of the ball and producing in Matchday 12, it was a glimpse into the player Chicago expect to see more consistently.
“Today [Shaqiri] played like a DP, like he should play every game,” Klopas said. “But you can just see it doesn't matter, even with him as a DP, if you don't have games in your legs. It’s hard to really find his rhythm if you don't. You can see with game in and game out now that he's playing games, he's sharper, and he's even gonna get sharper.
“… His work rate today, his numbers, were incredible. And I see him getting stronger with every game that he plays."
Asked about their potential one-two punch, Gutiérrez noted the “great connection we have together” and Shaqiri said “we are good footballers, we can combine very well.”
As that partnership potentially thrives, Chicago are confident an up-and-down week is behind them. Klopas, part of the club since their 1998 launch, feels togetherness can be their fuel.
“There's a confidence within the team [because] we have a good team, we have good players,” said Klopas. “And the key is that, when we play in a collective way, everybody shines and that's the one message I've tried to get across. There will be flashes where individuality can take over – Guti has that, Shaqiri has that, we have a lot of guys. But it’s if we can also play with the team together and fight as a team.”