BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – There’s a lot that goes into the role, but the job of every MLS GM can often be boiled down to a series of compromises between their club’s short-term needs and long-term vision.
When things are going well, the gig looks easy. When things hit the fan, as they do for basically every team at some point in the eight-month MLS regular season, the job becomes significantly more stressful.
It’s in those difficult moments, when their team have suffered a rash of major injuries or are going through an extended downturn, that a GM is tested. How they react doesn’t just plot the course of one season, it can change the trajectory of what their club looks like for three, four or five years.
Every GM approaches that balancing act differently. Some ride the rollercoaster, reacting to swings in form by making big, multi-year signings. Others are more patient, keeping the faith in their long-term vision in the face of short-term problems.
Chicago Fire president GM Nelson Rodriguez is planted firmly on the patient end of that spectrum. In his two-plus seasons in Chicago, Rodriguez has been extremely consistent in his approach to roster-building. His Fire teams identify targets, put a valuation on them and, regardless of how much they might need that player, stick to that valuation when trying to make deals.
That tactic helped them acquire Dax McCarty from the New York Red Bulls for just $400,000 in allocation money last winter and played a role in their signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger on a free transfer from Manchester United last spring, two moves that powered the Fire’s massive turnaround in 2017.
It didn’t do them any favors this winter, however. Chicago failed in their attempt to build on their strong 2017 over the offseason, trading David Accam to Philadelphia, shedding starting center back Joao Meira and struggling in their bids to replace either or build on their returning core with a major signing.
A long-term injury to forward Michael De Leeuw threw a wrench into the Fire's 2018 plans. | USA Today Images
Coupled with the long-term injuries midfielders Michael De Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic suffered late in 2017 and the health issues several key players have dealt with this year, the empty offseason set the table for the Fire’s poor start to 2018. Chicago have just 11 points through their first 11 matches and are a woeful 2-4-1 at home. They’ve fought admirably and remain within striking range of the playoffs, but the holes Rodriguez spoke about this offseason at goalkeeper, center back and in the attack remain.
Despite that, Rodriguez still trusts his process. He’s taking responsibility for the quiet winter, but it sounds like he’ll mostly stick with his disciplined approach when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.
“You’re looking at the guy who is responsible. If I don’t think the fit is right or I don’t think the value is right, then we’re not doing it,” Rodriguez said at a 90-minute roundtable with reporters on Wednesday. “We respect that every team has to pursue their way, do things in their way. I think there’s been a lot of inflation in the market, I think average players are getting a lot in transfers in salaries, and again, I believe that by and large, the process that we’ve adopted, the process that we used so far has yielded really good results for us.
“I’m not ready to discard that. I have to recognize that if everybody is operating in a different realm and world, then at some point I need to adjust because we can’t just cling to our beliefs and be an outlier. But I still believe we’re going to get the right person and the right players for us in a way that makes sense.”
That didn’t happen over the winter, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Chicago were connected with Colombian midfielder Juan Fernando Quintero before he made a move to Argentine giants River Plate, and, as reported for MLSsoccer.com by Paul Tenorio, the club pursued midfielder Lee Nguyen from New England before the Revs traded the MLS vet to LAFC. Tenorio, now of The Athletic, reported that Chicago offered New England $750,000 in allocation money for Nguyen, who ended up being dealt to LAFC for only $700,000 in guaranteed allocation money on May 1.
The Fire missed out on playmaker Lee Nguyen, who was traded out-of-conference to LAFC. | USA Today Images
The Nguyen case, which Rodriguez hinted at on Wednesday without naming names, wasn’t exactly the norm for Chicago this winter, however. Rodriguez indicated that the Fire weren’t close with their valuations of most of their international targets, who ended up moving for much more than Chicago were willing to pay.
That creates a few questions for Rodriguez as he looks ahead to the summer window: First, do the Fire need to change how they’re valuing players? If not, do they need to be looking in different, potentially lower-profile markets for reinforcements?
Should he tweak his process?
“I think that the need to be honest and self-reflective is important,” he said. “If I look back at the deals we didn’t get, I don’t even know what it might’ve taken to get those deals done. We were so far away in our valuations, were so far away that I didn’t even see a bridge [to how a deal could’ve been completed]. Within the league, I think we made compelling offers…. Factually, we offered more for a player that subsequently moved to a different team for less. I can’t explain that. I can only know that we offered more, that’s all I can know.
“So, for sure, we have to constantly reflect and look at how we do things and what things need to change. But again, a month ago we beat the best home team [the New York Red Bulls] on their turf, tied the MLS Cup champion [Toronto FC], lost to the No. 1 team in the league [Atlanta] in a really good game at home. At some point, we’re going to get this all together, perhaps with new incorporations. Let’s see where that takes us.”
The Fire do have allocation money on hand, an open Designated Player spot and ownership that Rodriguez said is willing to invest at a high level, but time isn’t on their side. Chicago are in eighth in a stacked Eastern Conference. They’ll need to average 1.7 points per game in their remaining 23 matches just to reach 50 regular season points, the amount needed to qualify for the postseason out of the East in 2017. That’s a tall hill to climb, particularly with no new additions eligible to play until July 10. By then, it’s conceivable that the Fire will be in too deep of a hole to realistically dig out of.
And while Rodriguez’s insistence that the Fire won’t make an acquisition “just to make ourselves feel good or to try to deflect pressure” would seem to position the team to avoid signing someone that would handicap them in the long-run, there are questions about where this roster is headed.
Schweinsteiger (33), McCarty (31) and 2017 MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic (30) are all excellent players, but none are on the right side of 30. Chicago have some decent looking youngsters, but they don’t appear to have any players ahead of or entering their primes that look capable of being building blocks for a successful MLS team down the road.
Chicago have been linked with a move for Spanish star Fernando Torres. | Action Images / Reuters
That trend would certainly not be reversed if Chicago sign 34-year-old Spanish striker Fernando Torres to fill their lone remaining DP spot this summer. The Fire have been linked to Torres over the past few months, and Rodriguez spoke of him in positive terms on Wednesday.
“When you are constructing something that you want to be sustainable, you’d like to see a spread of ages across the roster,” Rodriguez said. “I acknowledge that, and I would also say at the present moment that there is a middle gap, call it from 24-28, where we don’t have a lot of guys. That’s something we’re aware of and have to look at, but just as I said we’re not going to sign someone who’s going to win us a headline, we’re not going to bring someone in just because they’re a particular age. They still have to be the right person, they still have to be the right player, they still have to be the right fit.”
Rodriguez is so far sticking to his guns by waiting for what he views as the right fit. But the Fire need help and they need it soon. If they don’t get it shortly after the summer window opens, trusting the process will only have led to a lack of progress for Chicago in 2018.
“We can only make our best efforts, we can only make offers that we think make sense. We can’t compel the other side to accept,” Rodriguez said. “That’s boring and it’s not a great sound bite, but we’re going to stay disciplined with what we do and how we do it. We’re not going to compromise our values for convenience. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I don’t think we’re sacrificing the present for the future. I don’t believe in that, but I do believe we’ll get the right guys.”