BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – While recently appointed Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez continues his search for a head coach, he has received the backing of two of his predecessors who believe he has what it takes to guide the club to a new era of success.
Peter Wilt, the club’s first GM from 1997 to 2005 and president from 2001 to 2005, and his successor as president, John Guppy (2005 to 2008), led the club during its glory days, and both believe that the very makeup of MLS will ensure that the Fire can become competitive once again.
The Men in Red finished 2015 as the league’s bottom club, with a disappointing, turbulent season culminating in the dismissal of head coach and director of soccer Frank Yallop in September en route to a franchise-worst 20 defeats.
However, both Wilt and Guppy believe that with the right head coach appointment the Fire can return to winning ways and restore their relevancy after what has been a tough period of decline for the 1998 MLS Cup winners, who have only made the postseason once in the last six years.
“Like the NFL, the salary cap and other mechanisms that force parity make MLS a difficult league to maintain success over long periods of time. For the same reason, it's a difficult league to stay at the bottom for long as well,” said Wilt, now the president and GM of NASL side Indy Eleven. “The lack of on-field success seems to have adversely affected the club's local relevance, which is more concerning than the lack of on-field success. Fortunately, I believe it's a problem that can be remedied simply by improving results.”
“The great thing about MLS is that every single team goes into preseason believing they have a chance to make the playoffs and ultimately go on to win the Cup,” added Guppy, who owns Chicago-based marketing agency Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing. “I’m not saying the Fire can go from worst to first, but fortunes can change quickly in MLS. I know it was a different time, but the Fire went from not existing to winning a championship in 1998. There’s an inspiration there to draw upon.”
Both men believe the Fire are on the right track, with the recent appointment of Rodriguez, the club’s first GM since Wilt, offering hope that the proper structures are being put in place by owner Andrew Hauptman to return the team to past glories.
“I think Fire fans should be excited about the arrival of Nelson,” Guppy insisted. “He’s a smart, thoughtful, soccer and operations mind and I’m confident he will bring some stability and focus to the club. He’s a holistic thinker and will be looking at every aspect of the club from coaching to scouting, to sports science, to the academy. All of these things are key to developing long term success.”
Asked how much needs to change to return the Fire to a position where they can compete at the end of the season, Wilt stressed: “Not much really. Half the job has already been done by hiring a competent general manager. Nelson Rodriguez is organized, respected, hardworking, well connected and has experience in several areas important to his current position. He needs to execute well in a couple of key areas that he doesn't have much experience; hiring the right head coach, recruiting the right international players and acquiring domestic players that the coach can build into a team.”
Both Wilt and Guppy went on to highlight the need for Rodriguez to find the right man to take the club forward. “It's critical,” said Wilt. “Wrong choice guarantees failure. Right choice means there is a good chance for success.”
“The head coach is obviously a critical hire for Nelson,” added Guppy. “I think about [Red Bulls sporting director] Ali Curtis and [head coach] Jesse Marsch in New York and how it seems they are very much in sync philosophically. I think Nelson needs to find his Jesse Marsch.”
With several names touted and some already interviewed, both men shared their views on what kind of man Rodriguez and the Fire should be targeting to succeed Yallop and interim head coach Brian Bliss.
“It needs to be someone Nelson can work with and someone who will have the respect of the players,” Wilt said. “Other important qualities include knowledge of MLS, the US player pool and relationships internationally.”
“Nelson’s been around the game a long time and I’m sure he has some candidates in mind,” Guppy added. “Equally, he’s probably trying to keep an open mind and consider new people he’s not as familiar with. Three guys that I would have on my candidate list are [US Under-20 head coach] Tab Ramos, [New York Cosmos head coach] Giovanni Saverese, and [former New York City FC manager] Jason Kreis.”
The club has come under fire from certain vocal sections of the fan base, but both Guppy and Wilt believe ownership will equip Rodriguez and the incoming head coach with the resources necessary to reignite the team’s fortunes.
“I think it’s up to Nelson to chart the course for the club from a soccer standpoint and I do believe Andrew [Hauptman] will invest based on those recommendations,” Guppy offered.
“I had a good conversation with Andrew at Ante Razov's Ring of Fire induction this summer about the club,” Wilt recalled. “There is no doubt that he wants to win and he will do whatever he can for the Fire to be successful. Hiring good people like Nelson and giving them the resources to succeed is all he needs to do. I believe he recognizes that.”