Stejskal: How MLS rules shaped the Chicago Fire's pursuit of Nico Gaitan

Nicolas Gaitan - Argentina - controlling the ball

After years of trying to acquire a game-changing playmaker, the Chicago Fire finally landed their man.

The Fire announced on Thursday that they signed Argentine midfielder Nicolas Gaitan on a free transfer from Chinese Super League club Dalian Yifang, bringing a happy end to the club’s lengthy, turbulent search for a No. 10.

“He is, I think,” Fire president and GM Nelson Rodriguez told when asked if Gaitan is the creative attacker the club has so long looked for. “We believe that Nico is very talented. He also fits well with us because of his versatility. He can play either wing and he can play underneath. Very good on the ball, very composed and we’re excited to finally bring a player of his skillset to our team.”

Chicago’s search for a No. 10 dates back a couple of years, but their pursuit of Gaitan only took five weeks. Rodriguez said that he first heard that the 31-year-old was available through an intermediary on Feb. 7. Chicago were familiar with Gaitan from his time with the Argentina national team and Spanish club Atletico Madrid, and immediately moved to put him on their Discovery List.

Unfortunately for the Fire, they’d been beaten to the punch: Gaitan was already on the Seattle Sounders’ Discovery List. In order to open negotiations with the former Benfica star, Chicago had to first get him on their list. That meant that, per league regulations, they had to offer Seattle $50,000 in General Allocation Money in exchange for the right to sign Gaitan. The Sounders mulled the offer for five days – the maximum amount of time MLS allows teams to consider Discovery List offers – before accepting.

At that point, Rodriguez and Chicago got in touch with Gaitan and Dalian Yifang. The Argentine had only moved to China one year earlier and was coming off a relatively successful 2018 season, but he was in a tough spot. Yifang’s winter signings of Slovakian midfielder Marek Hamsik and Ghanaian forward Emmanuel Boateng (not to be confused with the LA Galaxy winger) put the club over the Chinese Super League limit of four international players.

Gaitan was the odd man out. He had to leave the team. Chicago were interested, but their hands were a bit tied. The Fire already had the MLS maximum of three Designated Players under contract for 2019 in Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic and Aleksandar Katai, none of whom can be bought down using Targeted Allocation Money. Chicago couldn’t offer Gaitan a DP deal. If he joined the Fire, it would have to be as a TAM player this season. As such, his 2019 budget charge – salary plus amortized transfer fee – would not be able to exceed $1.5 million, significantly less than what he was reportedly making in China. Rodriguez said that Yifang wanted a transfer fee but that the Fire weren’t willing to pay one, noting that it would’ve eaten into the salary they could offer Gaitan while still keeping him under the TAM limit.

Chicago made their offer. League rules didn’t allow them to up it. A waiting game ensued. After a few weeks, the Fire won out, getting Gaitan without paying Yifang a fee.  

“In the end, really what had to happen was we kind of had to wait out all other markets and offers because we were only in position to do a TAM deal, having three DPs,” said Rodriguez. “So for us it wasn’t so much a negotiation because we couldn’t do more. We knew what our limits were, and I think as other potential bidders dropped out, we were last man standing.”

Rodriguez confirmed that Gaitan will count as a Designated Player in 2020 if Chicago exercise their option on his contract this winter. He added that all three of their current DPs are out of contract following the season.

Not that 2020 DP math was occupying too much of his attention. Rodriguez was understandably more excited about what he thinks Gaitan will bring to the Fire this season as they look to rebound from a miserable 2018.

“I think he makes us more complete,” said Rodriguez. “I think that we found when we’re at our best, that the best that teams could do to combat us was to play in a little bit of a lower block, which we respect, but we had trouble breaking that down. I think now with a player of his vision and his deftness and array of passing, that that will be something we can counteract. I think he’s good in transition as well, and we’ve added some pieces that make us better in that aspect of the game, so we just believe he’s a really good all-around fit.”

It’s not yet clear when Gaitan will actually arrive in Chicago (Rodriguez said he’s “heard horror stories” about getting International Transfer Certificates, which are required for a player to be eligible, from Chinese clubs), but the Fire are hoping he'll be able to debut in their April 6 match at Toronto FC. He’ll likely shift one of Chicago’s current crop of attackers to the bench once he does arrive, though Rodriguez left the matter of whether he’ll line up in the middle or on either wing to head coach Veljko Paunovic.

Regardless of what position he plays with the Fire, Gaitan will increase the competition for Katai, Djordje Mihailovic, Przemyslaw Frankowski and C.J. Sapong and leave Chicago better equipped to deal with what’s shaping up to be an incredibly busy summer schedule.

It’s unlikely that Gaitan will be Chicago’s final addition during the primary transfer window. Rodriguez said that the Fire were “unable to close” on Swedish center back target Joakim Nilsson, but said they’re still searching for a new addition in the middle of their backline. The Fire, who are 0-1-1 heading into their home match against Seattle on Saturday, have until May 7 to make any other new signings.