Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez is a measured man, seemingly always conscious to not get ahead of himself and never wanting those around him to do so either.
So when he was asked on Tuesday during a roundtable with media whether third-place Chicago’s 11-game unbeaten streak earlier this year put their rebuild ahead of schedule, it was fitting that he hedged his answer a bit.
“I’ll take it. I’ll take another one right now,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “What that’s enabled us to do is bank a current position. It’s not enough to bank a playoff spot, but it’s allowed us to continue to work in a relaxed and methodical manner.
“I wouldn’t say it was ahead of schedule but what I would say is – 11 games is a third of the season, so what I would suggest is, [that run] is a fair suggestion of what this team can be. I’m not prepared to say it is who we are, because 11 games is not enough to stamp that identity, it’s not enough to carry us through difficult moments, we haven’t been through the crucible of true hardship yet. But I think it is enough of an indicator to say, we can be a very, very good and dangerous team.”
The Fire haven’t been good at all since the Gold Cup break, posting a 1-3-0 record in four games since returning to action following MLS’ two-week layoff. The mini-slump has dropped them from first to third in the Supporters’ Shield standings ahead of their matches at Montreal on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE in the US | TVA Sports, TSN 1/3/5 in Canada) and against Toronto on Saturday (8 pm ET; MLS LIVE in the US | TSN 1/4 in Canada).
“It’s been an interesting few weeks since the break,” Rodriguez said. “Admittedly we have not regained the form that we took into the break, and it’s been a whole new set of tests for us. … Tests that I wouldn’t say we failed, but certainly we didn’t pass. And showed there’s still room for improvement on our end.”
First-place Toronto are currently six points ahead of Chicago in the Shield race, though the Fire do have a game in hand on TFC. Rodriguez was careful to not look ahead to Saturday’s match against the Reds, but did comment on whether he saw Toronto – who, like Chicago are attempting to do, engineered a massive turnaround from the MLS basement to league elite – as a blueprint for his Fire.
“When I look at them and we have to try to model ourselves against big teams and successful teams like Toronto has shown, one of the things I look at is we need time,” he said. “We still need to improve on what we do and how we do it. We still need to improve the roster, but we need our core group of guys now to stay together for two or three years and see where that takes us.”
Before they take on TFC, however, the Fire face the prospect of playing at Montreal on Wednesday. Chicago will have to answer some questions about their road form if they want to make a deep playoff run. The Fire are unbeaten at Toyota Park this year (10-0-1), but they have worst road record (2-6-4) of any of the top six teams in the East.
“I think [road struggles] demonstrate something deeper, which is collective mentality,” Rodriguez said. “Look, we need to win some games on the road to change that and to improve upon that, but again I think it comes from time together, of being in the foxhole, falling behind and winning the game on the road, pitching a shutout on the road, if I can borrow a baseball phrase.
“I think we still view being on the road as being on the road; as opposed to viewing it as an opportunity to play our way, as we want, when we want, where we want, when we want. There needs to be some more collective mentality that goes into that, and that’s an area that we have to improve upon. And if we don’t, and if we make the playoffs, it will be a short stay.”
After talking about depth, roster management and taking things a game at a time, Rodriguez was asked whether the club was focusing more on winning either the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup. The Fire boss wasn’t timid about the possibilities of winning one or both, but also once again his usual calculated self.
“I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive, but I do think they go in an order,” he said. “You can’t win Supporters’ Shield without first making the playoffs and so we have to first make the playoffs and to do that we have to win our next game. There are still too many games and too many points at stake … we have to try to take care of Montreal, we have to try to get those three points.
“So it’s sequential. It’s the next game, until we win enough of those that we’re in the playoffs. If we’re mathematically in the playoffs with games to play then it goes to seeding – finishing top four so you host a game, top two so you can get a bye and then maybe win the conference and then maybe Supporters’ Shield. It’s a series of dominoes, the first one though, is Montreal.”