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Stejskal: Chicago GM Nelson Rodriguez takes blame after tough 2018 season

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Chicago Fire president and GM Nelson Rodriguez didn’t hide from his team’s disappointing 2018 in his end-of-season roundtable with reporters on Thursday. He knows just how brutal Chicago’s backslide was this season, and he took full responsibility for their massive, 17-place fall in the standings from 2017 to 2018.

He also made it abundantly clear that he thinks he’s the man to get things back on track.

“I am responsible. I didn’t do a good enough job. No one should blame ownership, we have all the resources that we need to succeed. It’s not the fault of the coaches or the staff, this season has my fingerprints on it,” he said. “Throughout the year, I reiterated my very strong belief in the character of the locker room, the coaches and our entire club staff. I don’t regret putting my faith there. No one quit, no one has made excuses, we defended the badge with pride and honor. Any shortcomings that anyone may see should realize that they are a result of my decisions.”

“We will move this club forward,” he added later. “We will achieve our goals, we will build a club that makes our fans proud and adds to Chicago’s championship lore.”

That candor sounds great in a press conference, but it begs a couple of follow-ups: How will Rodriguez change things? And why does he deserve another chance?

By his own admission, Rodriguez failed in 2018. But despite his inability to fill obvious holes at goalkeeper, center back and attacking midfield in either the Primary or Secondary Transfer Window, he isn’t going anywhere. Head coach Veljko Paunovic is out of contract, but all signs from Rodriguez, sources around MLS and Paunovic himself point to a return for the Serbian manager.

The leadership will likely remain intact. Rodriguez indicated that they remain confident in their process despite their three-year run of mostly poor results. Why then, should we expect anything to change? It’s nice that Rodriguez is taking responsibility, but how does he plan on actually making the Fire better?

The first step, according to Rodriguez, is to be “bolder” in the transfer market. They made the effort this season, they just couldn’t get any significant deals over the line. Rodriguez said on Thursday that Chicago made a $17 million offer for an attacking midfielder that got rejected by his club; they made a serious run at a veteran goalkeeper; a No. 10 agreed to personal terms and his club accepted a transfer fee but the player’s father stepped in at the last second and convinced him he shouldn’t move to MLS.

Near-misses, all. None of which mean much when you finish with 32 points in 34 games.

“I should’ve had more urgency about getting some things done and I didn’t,” he said. “I thought for sure we would find the right players and get things done. You get no credit for not doing a bad deal, but it also doesn’t help when you don’t get enough good players. We made attempts to bring in players, they just didn’t come through for various reasons.”

One of the reasons Chicago couldn’t get a deal over the line was Rodriguez’s rigidness in how he values players. He’s talked in the past about putting a valuation on a transfer target and being firm with that number in negotiations. If a player or his club want more than the Fire’s valuation, so be it. Chicago will move on to a new target. After a couple of empty transfer windows, that strategy may change.

“I think our scouting and recruitment process is better, so our pipeline is deeper now than it’s ever been. Second, we have to look at how we created our valuations for players and see if that needs to be tweaked,” said Rodriguez. “There’s a reality within the league, as well, which is if everyone’s paying at a certain baseline or freight level, even if you think that’s unreasonable, unfair or improper, you might need to adjust in order to stay in the game. So those are things I need to look at.”

Rodriguez said that Chicago need to improve across every line on the field, but he once again singled out center back, attacking midfield and goalkeeper as positions of particular need. He also said that the club is in talks to bring back Designated Player Bastian Schweinsteiger and right back Matt Polster, both of whom are out of contract.

That largely covers how Rodriguez plans to improve things in 2019. Which brings us back to the second follow-up: Why do he and Paunovic deserve more time? After results ranging from brutal-but-understandable in 2016 to surprisingly successful in 2017 to wildly disappointing this season, after the mistakes in the transfer market, why should they get another chance to rebuild the Fire?

Rodriguez was asked that question on Thursday. His response, which stretched for almost five minutes, was perhaps the most notable portion of his hour-long press conference. He argued for stability as a concept, saying teams in MLS, around the world and in other sports don’t succeed when they frequently change their coaches and executives. He pointed to the lengthy delay before legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson won his first trophy and to the early struggles of iconic Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry as evidence that even the all-time greats occasionally need time. He said he understood why fans are upset and why he’d be questioned. And he asked for more time. Three years into his three-year plan, he pleaded for more patience.

“I may not be right,” he said. “I may fail. People might be sick of me. All those things may be true, but I’m still going to say the same thing: Whoever is next, give them time, give them support, give them stability. I’m not complaining about the questions, I think they’re right, I think they’re appropriate. I’m not complaining about the fan reaction, I think they’re right. Everybody wants to be associated with something that gives them pride and losing doesn’t engender that. I get it.

“But I can’t state an effective case publicly because they’ve heard it all before. They’ve heard from the three GMs or technical directors that preceded me, they’ve heard it from the two presidents or COOs that preceded me. This is about, it’s a results-oriented business and we didn’t deliver the results this year. We didn’t deliver them in the first year, though I would submit the circumstances were different, but I still accept it goes against my record. We did deliver it to some extent in year two, but I think the great teams, the great clubs pursue a vision with dedication, with guts and they get there.”

Rodriguez will get more time in 2019. We’ll see if he can use it to get the Fire back where he thinks they belong.