In just his second year in charge, Hendrickson by all accounts had the respect of the locker room and the backing of the club. Even the Fire’s lackluster 2W-3L-5D record after 11 matchdays (14th place) belies the fact they could arguably be in prime Audi MLS Cup Playoffs positioning if not for their penchant for blowing late leads.
Fire sporting director Georg Heitz conceded as much during Monday’s media availability held to discuss Hendrickson's dismissal while also presenting new head coach Frank Klopas.
“I think it’s a fair question,” Heitz answered when asked why the club decided to make a change so early in the year.
“A season can slip away quickly and we really thought that we had to change now,” the Swiss-born executive said, implying his relationship with Hendrickson had deteriorated of late.
“We were hopeful and we thought that the philosophies would be aligned. And I think in the past few months… we realized that the philosophies were not aligned anymore.”
Ultimately, Hendrickson took over the Fire before the 2022 campaign and amassed a 13W-19L-14D record with the club across all competitions.
"I can understand that he is disappointed," Heitz said. "It is never the fault of one person if such a thing happens, and of course, I am the first one who is responsible for the results of this club, for the sporting department of this club, and therefore, I would not blame it on Ezra."
Chicago’s bad habit of dropping points late in four of their last eight games was also clearly a sore spot for the higher-ups.
“This is something that was more and more concerning for us,” Heinz said. “... I really think, and I’m not the only one in this club, I think we have a team that should make the playoffs.”
Klopas takes over
It's quite an ambitious statement for a team that’s qualified just twice for the postseason since 2010 – with both appearances (2012, ’17) ending in Round One exits.
And Klopas, who’s about to begin his third stint in charge of the Fire after coaching them from 2011-13 before replacing the departed Raphael Wicky to close out the 2021 season, was on Hendrickson's staff as an assistant.
Still, Heitz is convinced he’s hired the right man for the job with Klopas given his post for the remainder of the 2023 season.
“I strongly believe in Frank’s skills as a coach, he has a lot of qualities,” Heitz said about the Fire legend who’s held numerous positions at the club over the last 25-plus years.
“I strongly believe that Frank and his team can turn the wheel around.”
Heitz's belief in a turnaround is so strong, in fact, he all but ruled out making widespread signings during the Secondary Transfer Window, which runs from July 5 to August 2. Though Heitz did say they'll "see what we can do" when exploring options around their open Designated Player spot.
“Probably not a very aggressive, not a very busy transfer window,” he stated, “because we believe that this team basically is strong enough to make the playoffs.”
"Everybody must improve"
That said, Heitz does recognize the squad needs to step it up on the field – even mentioning Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri by name.
“Of course, Xherdan is not happy with his performances,” he said of the often-injured club-record signing (reported $7.5 million), who has 0g/0a in six games (four starts) this season.
“Everybody must improve, every player must improve. Especially, you know, the Designated Players.”
Klopas, for his part, not only echoed Heitz's sentiment about the club reaching the playoffs, but also winning silverware this season in the form of the US Open Cup – a trophy he lifted as a player (along with MLS Cup) in 1998. He begins this quest Tuesday, with the Fire hosting expansion side St. Louis CITY SC in the tournament's Round of 32 (8 pm ET).
"Obviously there's no bigger game than tomorrow," Klopas said, while conceding there's little time to implement massive tactical changes on such short notice.
"Try to win an Open Cup, another one, with this team. That would be an incredible accomplishment."